Saturday, May 21, 2016

Movie Review: Apocalypto

Apocalypto (2006)
Directed by Mel Gibson
Starring: Rudy Youngblood, Raul Trujillo, Mayra Serbulo

I wanted to like this film. There was so much about the concept to like: the Native American cast, the setting in the Mayan civilization, the dialogue in the Yucatan Maya language. But it almost immediately was a disappointment to me.

First, it really isn't set in the Maya civilization. The protagonist, Jaguar Paw, lives in the jungle with his family. When he and his fellow hunters are captured and taken to a Maya city as sacrificial victims, they are clearly not members of that culture. They have never seen a city of stone houses before. Once I realized that, I was actually irritated that they were speaking the same language as their captors, as they would certainly not have shared a language, though perhaps their tongues might have been very similar.

In addition to my disappointment that the film wasn't really about the Maya people, I was also unhappy to find it unrelentingly grim. Jaguar Paw barely has any pleasant screen time with his family before everyone is killed or captured by the Maya warriors. The Maya themselves are presented as very unpleasant, hedonistic people who are busily destroying the environment to build to build bigger palaces for their king. They are cruel to those with a contagious illness, and their city is filled with reminders of human sacrifice. I'm sure director Mel Gibson was trying to make an environmental statement and commentary on modern materialism, but it was so heavy-handed that I couldn't appreciate it. I couldn't feel any empathy for the Maya at all; from the opulently-dressed and indolent nobles to the sadistic warrior who keeps threatening Jaguar Paw, they were presented as cardboard villains.

I had wanted the Maya to be depicted as highly civilized, intelligent and technologically advanced people they were, but all the focus seemed to be on how ruthless and obsessed with bloodletting they were, while Jaguar Paw's tribe were presented as "gentle primitives". It was a typically irritating presentation of tribal people as simple and noble, while the civilized people are evil, especially because they believe in blood sacrifice. In the end when the Spaniards arrive it almost seems as though they are meant to be saviors, though Jaguar Paw rejects them.

While Jaguar Paw is trying to avoid being sacrificed and escape his captors, his wife Seven and young son are trapped in an underground cave where they hid when their village was attacked. It was predictable and annoying that one of the Maya warriors almost notices her, and then for no reason cuts the rope that Jaguar Paw had left to help her climb out of the cave. This kind of thing happens in every action movie where someone is hiding from a menacing bad guy, and it's so boring. Seven, who is heavily pregnant, spends the rest of the film trying to get out of the cave, only to be trapped when a torrential downpour starts to fill the cave with water. Really? It rained enough in half an hour to fill the cave? And to make matters worse, of course she goes into labor, just to add some artificial suspense.

Jaguar Paw, after escaping the Maya, spends the rest of the film trying to get back to his wife and son, which of course requires him to go through a kind of gauntlet of fights with the Maya warriors who naturally relentlessly pursue him. So basically he reenacts Die Hard in the jungle. In typical action movie style he gets back just in time to keep Seven from drowning. It was all so predictable. The only elements with any originality were the cultural setting and language.

Maybe someday someone will make a movie about the Maya, one in which they are three-dimensional people that we can relate to and where human sacrifice isn't the only thing they do. But that isn't this movie. It would have been nice, too, if the Native Americans had been behind the camera as well as in front of it, and the expert on Maya culture serving as a consultant had been someone from Central America instead of from a midwestern university. Maybe then the film wouldn't have felt so condescending.

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