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Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto”

Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, December 6, 2006

A tribesman is brutally captured and this noble son is sold into bondage, his life forfeit. Tormented by his instinctual need for freedom, he makes a last gasp at freedom.

The nearest emotional predecessor to Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” an epic fable set amongst the fall of a crumbling Mayan civilization, isn’t even a film at all. It’s an acclaimed television series from the late 1970s – Alex Haley’s “Roots.”

The similarities between the two are numerous, not the least of which is their ability to burrow into the mind and gnaw at your conscience. With shocking imagery that bruises the senses, it’s hard to ignore what’s being said. The only difference is that “Apocalypto” comes with the kind of baggage that would sink a lesser film.

The tagline to “Apocalypto” – “No one can outrun their destiny.” – applies just as aptly to Kunta Kinte, the emotional center of Haley’s generational masterpiece, as it does to Jaguar Paw, the lead of Gibson’s tale. Kunta’s destiny is sealed as soon as he’s sold to a slave ship heading for America. But when Jaguar Paw manages to flee his captors, a magnificent chase begins.

The world of “Apocalypto” is one of primal, almost unearthly beauty. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) lives amongst his family and friends, a proud member of a tribe that has hunted the surrounding jungle for generations. But Jaguar Paw’s tranquil life is shattered when he and his brethren are captured and sold to Mayan rulers.

Sitting atop thrones of opulent splendor, these monarchs demand human sacrifice to appease the gods and seek blessings for their flagging crops. Jaguar Paw’s end is one of hundreds freely offered to suit their ignoble means. As he mounts a fateful escape, Jaguar Paw races towards his family and a life he hopes to preserve for his sons and their sons after them.

Billed as a period piece by a director who has stamped his name on two of the most profitable enterprises from that genre, “Apocalypto” is a further evolution of Gibson’s craft. “Braveheart” and “The Passion of the Christ” were unmitigated successes. The former won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1996 and granted Gibson Best Director honors, and the latter drew in over $610 million worldwide. But with a July arrest for drunk driving and a subsequent anti-Semitic tirade still fresh media fodder, Gibson’s latest passion project has drawn the public’s eye for all the wrong reasons. Thankfully, “Apocalypto” is a film that rises above the storm clouds that surround Gibson, offering an experience unlike any other in recent years.

In an October interview with ComingSoon.net, Gibson cited his desire to make a chase movie as the principal motivation behind the film’s genesis.

“And I thought, well, there’s all kinds of chases. There’s train chases, car chases, horse chases. I thought, a foot chase! … That’s as minimum and as primal as it gets: it’s just feet, just running,” Gibson said. “So of course then you start searching for an environment in which that could have happened.”

Primal is the most apt description for Gibson’s fight or flight thrill ride. The environment Gibson chose – the jungles of Mexico – is the perfect staging ground for a film that packs more adrenaline than a handful of Hollywood blockbusters. With foot races away from panthers and hurdles over jungle ravines, “Apocalypto” is a rush to behold, a picture that hinges on pure sensation rather than a deeper meaning – which is both its greatest strength and its harshest weakness.

Over its course, “Apocalypto” takes a sharp detour from the deep feeling and quiet poignancy that pervades its first half hour. Though Gibson settled on authentic Yucatec Maya to communicate the film’s deep sentiments, there’s nothing foreign in the profound love shared by husbands and wives, fathers and sons and extended families. When this harmony is broken, the ensuing bloodletting is vicious and unsettling, violence that spirals through to the very edge of the film’s conclusion. And perhaps that’s the point here – the heavy price of freedom.

Supported by lush cinematography and moving performances, this film is another demonstration of Gibson’s undeniable talent behind the camera. When the dust settles, will “Apocalypto” stand the test of time? “Roots” has. Sadly, “Apocalypto” hinges the fate of an entire civilization on the turmoil of one man’s life – a lofty goal, but one that’s ultimately short sighted.

By film’s end, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Gibson’s purest reason for conceiving the film was realized – that all he made was a chase film, and nothing more.