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Apocalypto

Mel Gibson's Mayan Bloodletting is the Worst Movie of the Year

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Apocalypto

Rudy Youngblood in Apocalypto

Image © Touchstone
The culture of the pre-Columbian Maya is a fascinating topic. The ancient Central American civilization flourished from about 200 and 900 AD, built enormous cities, and was famous for sophisticated mathematical and astrological systems, especially their calendar. Pyramids and temples were constructed as observatories, and the Maya could anticipate the movement of the stars with astounding precision. Innovative thinkers like Jose Arguelles have made the case that the Mayan calendar is more accurate than ours, and a number of theories have developed around the end of the Mayan "Long Count," an 8,000 year cycle, in 2012.

A Gazillion Ways to Die in the Jungle

Unfortunately, none of this found its way into Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, which seems satisfied to use the Maya as an excuse to follow-up the Biblical snuff film The Passion of the Christ with an even more elaborately staged blood bath. There is passing reference to Mayan gods and legends, but primarily, Gibson is busy cataloging gazillion ways to die in the jungle; it's as if he wanted to dramatize Werner Herzog's famous speech from Burden of Dreams: "Nature here is vile and base.... I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival... the jungle is death."

Mayan villagers in Apocalypto

Image © Touchstone
Apocalypto begins with a hunt; a group of villagers living on the outskirts of the crumbling Mayan empire have caught a tapir. The actors speak ancient Mayan and enact some ancient Hollywood humor before their innocent frolicking is put to an abrupt end when the evil Mayans attack (you can tell them by their wicked facial modifications.)

From here on out, it's all suffering and hardship. Dark dreams, bad omens and prophecies delivered by disfigured children are followed by messy scenes of sadistic massacres and mass rape, artlessly directed and apparently edited at random. Throats are cut, veins are opened. Men are knifed, stabbed, clobbered, beheaded, caught in tar pits, mauled by wild beasts, poisoned by frogs and snakes, assaulted by beehive bombs, impaled on arrows and traps, gutted alive, crushed on rocks after tumbling down waterfalls. The blood flows, drips, squirts, gushes and sprays from bashed-in skulls, much like it did in Monty Python and the Holy Grail--but to less hilarious effect.

A Horrifying Retelling of the Odyssey

The Passion of the Christ was a similarly bloodthirsty film, but in the eyes of many, the religious subject legitimized the suffering. What is Apocalypto's point? There is an epigraph that adds a little bit of malarkey about the fall of civilizations, and it certainly feels as if Apocalypto wants to make a statement of some kind. Historians dispute the reasons for the fall of the Mayan civilization, so Gibson heaps them on, a parade of ecological collapse, disease, invasion, rot and decay in Biblical proportions, but what's a cause and what's an effect? Apocalypto doesn't offer a place from which to evaluate the horrors on display. In truth, the decline of Mayan civilization is just the unexplored backdrop for a particularly horrifying retelling of the Odyssey.

The real climax of Apocalypto happens half-way through the film. Now prisoners of a cruel slave trader, the surviving villagers arrive in the decadent, plague-ridden metropolis. The place is teeming with effete aristocrats in outlandish masks and insane fundamentalists who speak in tongues and dance around the central pyramid. A cadre of hallucinating high priests cuts out hearts like they're working the killing floor in Fast Food Nation. The serial human sacrifice plays like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom without the winking, campy fun.

I'm not a Mayan scholar, but from what I understand, what happens next contradicts everything we know about the Maya. When it's our guy's turn on the butcher block, a solar eclipse takes everybody by surprise, as if the entire culture wasn't based on precise calculation of the movements of the stars. For the sake of a tired B-movie trope--the cosmic event as quick exit from dire straits--Gibson misrepresents the very foundations of the civilization he pretends to portray. The message is clear: we're not supposed to wonder if it makes any kind of sense, we're just supposed to watch. Like the bloodthirsty Mayans dancing at the base of the pyramid, it's the gory spectacle of human sacrifice we came to see. Unpleasant, pointless, gruesome, and exploitative, Apocalypto is the worst movie of the year.
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