Thursday, January 04, 2007

Apocalypto (Film review)

We went to see Mel Gibson's Meso-American action film last night, Apocalypto.

It's a very good movie (8/10) - so watch it first (but be warned that it is quite bloody in places), then read on!

As is my preference, I went into this movie without reading a word about it (save the tagline on the posters in the foyer - "Nobody can outrun their destiny"). And, having looked at a few reviews today, I am glad that I can still see a film fresh without reading someone else's opinion first and forcing myself to view the film in a predefined context.

So again, I tell you - go watch the film first and then come back and read!

Now that you've seen it, what do you think. Really think?

I came out and was struggling a little. Was it a film with a message, and if so what was that message? Twenty-four hours later I have realised that, first and foremost, it's an action movie. As such, it's one of the best. I was physically tense in my seat for large parts of the movie. I cared about the characters. I jumped, I held my breath, I willed the hero on, I ignored some of the ridiculous handicaps the hero overcame (running for days with an arrow wound through his abdomen...). It's very pretty, quite thoughtful, and non-stop action - adding up to an excellent action movie. A modern day 'Gladiator' if you will. A simple tale of a hero overcoming great odds to save his family, a victory of love over revenge.

But I came out of the cinema wondering about the message. There were three narrative scenes in the film that I took to be hints at the message.


Is the film about fear, and the wasting effect of fear on a person and a civilisation? The village chief gives his son a lecture on fear as they return to the village; the chief refuses to show fear in the face of death (and then does not fall, even when dead); the hysteria (and hence ultimate downfall) of the city is driven by fear; Jaguar Paw finally starts to defeat the pursuers when he stops fearing and starts to fight back with resolution.

I don't know anything of Gibson's politics but it would be an interesting subject for the film in the current political climate. Is he suggesting that we are allowing fear to guide our civilisations down doomed paths?

Insatiable greed

During the village feast the Story Teller tells a tale of the greed of man, and the musings of the wise owl that suggest that man is doomed always to want, until the earth can give no more.

The contrast of the (heroes') village and the (villains') city might suggest this. The city is a place of sickness, hysteria and an idle ruling class (compared to the villages active, hunting, chief). It would be easy to extrapolate this to say it is a city of overstretched resources, suffering in the face of failed crops. The village is a place of ingenuity and cameraderie, with teamwork and clever traps to catch their dinner, and a compassion shown to the wanderers they pass from the other village. Again, this could be extrapolated to suggest that Jaguar Paw's new village, with it's small footprint and sustainable ways, will better survive the coming invasion.

But it's all hinted at, never clearly spoken, so perhaps I am reading too much into things.


In the same way that I am not familiar with Gibson's politics, I know nothing of his spirituality. The brutal depiction of the City's religious activities as bloodthirsty hysteria would suggest an outsiders commentary on religion as a whole. But perhaps he is just saying that that religion is misguided.

Anyway, I would have thought the commentary was generally anti-religious if not for the importance played by the prophetic elements. The smallpox infected (well, I'm assuming it's smallpox - please set me straight if I'm wrong) girl prophesises quite accurately the downfall of the warriors' city. To me this suggests that the writer believes there is something beyond the physical, something that can be tapped into. If only something that men might call 'Destiny'.

And then I read some of the online reviews. They cried about the brutality on the screen (which, to my mind, was no worse than Braveheart or Gladiator). They were shocked that Native American actors could work on a film that portrays their ancestors in such a negative light. Heads on poles! Shock and horror! Human sacrifice! Pits full of bodies! They scoffed at the depiction of Christian saviours coming to save the barbarians from their evil ways and set them on the path of righteousness. To my eyes, I saw the invaders in one shot, looking quite menacing armed with steel armour, wooden crosses and invisible, domesticated, germs.

I have to disagree with all of these and say that I fear they are all a case of people finding their favourite axes to grind within what is a grandiose and visually rich movie.

First, I thought that it is currently widely accepted that Aztecs made human sacrifices, often in great numbers, as part of their religious ceremonies. Some sources claim that they sacrificed up to 80,000 people in four days while consecrating the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan [Hanson, Victor Davis (2000), Carnage and Culture. ISBN 0-385-72038-6]. That's 14 deaths per minute.

Now, I understand that it's uncomfortable to see that or references to it in an action film, especially if you have some Native American heritage, but I personally see no problem with it. Europeans, Africans, Asians and Americans - people of all races - have passed through periods of dark history, that a modern mindset can barely comprehend.

To me, it would seem that we should face that, try to understand why such things happened, decide that we do not wish to return there and act accordingly.

The second thread I disagree with is the implication that the film depicts the Christians as saviours of the barbarians.

Now, perhaps this was Gibson's intent, but I'm not so sure. The film's tagline of "No-one can outrun his destiny" to me suggests that the bigger picture is the almost utter destruction of the Aztec civilisation by the invaders.

I could be wrong, but the scenes of smallpox-decimated villages hint at this. Smallpox spread through the Americas ahead of the Conquistadores and killed of 90-95% of the natives before they ever started fighting [Diamond, Jared (1999), Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. ISBN 0-099-30278-0]. The invaders were destroyers, not saviours.

Anyway, that's my tuppence worth. I hope it doesn't offend anyone! It is a good film and recommended to all (but the most squeamish) fans of action movies and fans of films that give you enough content to be able to reflect a little.