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Movie Review: Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (2006)

I finally got a chance to catch Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto this week. I was completely blown away. I frequently build up a movie in my head and then see it, only to suffer bitter disappointment that it did not live up to my expectations. This was not one of those times. I will tell you up front I am not going to respond to this as some history expert who knows exactly what time and place this story is supposed to be happening during. I don’t think those details matter to the heart of this story.

What made it a great movie, was that I was transported during the 2 ½ hours that I was viewing it. I was completely into the story, even though it was longer than most movies. I read one review of this movie that said they didn’t see what Mel Gibson’s point was in making this movie. The point is shared at the beginning of the film with a quote credited to W. Durant:
“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed
itself from within.”
So this movie is about civilizations and how the strife inside the civilization aids those who come from the outside to destroy it. It’s not meant to blacken any one civilization’s culture or label a certain group as barbarians, as some critics are claiming. If anything, it is a commentary on what happens when evil is allowed to reign unchecked. At the end, when the surprise guests come, it is easy to see why the Mayan civilization fell: they were destroying each other.

Jaguar Paw is our hero, and he is a striking figure indeed. He is handsome, but also intense, with eyes that could bore through a man. His eyes, although young, seem troubled by an inner fear. At the beginning of this movie, Jaguar Paw and his buddies are hunting for meat. They seem comfortable with one another, joking around and playing pranks. There are conflicts among them, but when a potentially threatening force invades their peace, they unite as one, daring any to enter their woods. A group of thin, creepy guys offers them some jumbo fish as a tentative offering. They just want to pass through unharmed. Everyone seems happy with the fish, but Jaguar Paw is troubled by their presence. Something about the way they are sneaking through the woods doesn’t seem right. You can tell the other men are unfazed as Jaguar Paw stares at the crowd of men, women and children that cross their land. They look downcast and defeated.

The next day, his worst fears are realized when a group of headhunters from another part of the country comes to steal, kill, and destroy their homes and pride. The men of Jaguar Paw’s tribe must watch helplessly as the evil men rape their women, terrorize their children, and ransack their homes and village. It is the worst fear of any man to have an intruder come in to harm your family. It was heartbreaking to watch these men unable to protect the ones they loved.

There is then a march to the center of the bad guys’ city, and then a chase back home. I am not at all trivializing these parts. But the events that unfold you have to see to believe. Gibson is definitely not afraid to show horrific events on screen, although he does not show any rape on screen. We know what is happening, but we don’t have to see the nitty gritty. The scenery is breathtaking, even when it is gruesome.

There is one scene that made me chuckle. In one scene, the spiritual priest is offering the tribe’s bodies as sacrifices. He was saying that the gods were displeased because crops would not grow and many people were getting sick. Later on, we see a possible reason why the crops won’t grow. There is a huge mound of bodies of the people they have slaughtered piled up and rotting on the outside of the city. Maybe piling unburied dead bodies in a big heap is not the best way to assure your citizen’s health, hmmm?

The chase scene was a tiring thing to watch at the end as Jaguar Paw runs back to his wife and baby (who are hiding in a pit while the rains come down). He runs and escapes a jaguar, death by going over a waterfall, quick sand, and more. And the man still has the strength to pull his wife and baby up. Yummy.


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