Apocalypto (or Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto as it says on the Blu Ray I have here) is a story about South American tribes and conflict. It starts off feeling like a National Geographic documentary but quickly introduces a more human side to the characters which draws the viewer into the story rather than leaving you feel like a detached observer. Unfortunately it quickly moves on to the kind of violent tribal strife that you see in more sensational films like Cannibal Holocaust but to be fair it is elegantly done. The whole thing changes tack in the last hour or so when it becomes a straightforward underdog vs. evil revenge movie.
In summary, a pretty straightforward story with what appears to be deliberately sensationalist levels of violence, cruelty and gore. Everything is so beautifully filmed, with an attention to detail that repeatedly makes you feel you are watching a nature documentary, that you often forget you are watching a story which is good when the story is pretty weak. However, when the story comes back you sometimes feel it is a bit of an intrusion and I found myself wishing that I could go back to the National Geographic version.
Mild spoilers below.
The story centres around an, apparently, peaceful tribe in the jungles of Central America. While out hunting in the jungle they meet another tribe that has been displaced by warfare. Shortly after they return to their village our tribe is also attacked and many are killed. Our hero hides his pregnant wife and infant son in a hole before returning to the fight.
The middle part of the film follows the captured tribesmen as they are brutally treated by their captors and transported to the city/temple of a large civilisation. During this part there is lots of the usual unpleasantness that film makers need to put in to let you know that the bad guys really are the Bad Guys. Not much else develops plot or character wise in this section but the scenery that the captured tribe is marched through is breathtaking.
As they finally leave the jungle, the lush greens give way to the harsh monochrome of a limestone quarry where everything is coated in white dust and the exploited workers cough up vividly red blood. This clears the slate for the arrival at the Mayan city with gloriously rich colours and details contrasting vividly with the monochrome of the quarry and the lush green of the jungle. Everything is old, dying and rotten here though despite the vibrancy of the colours.
The women are sold as slaves and the men are painted blue and taken to be sacrificed. Many heads are bounced down the stone steps of the temple as the sacrifice continues to appease the gods. Our guys are stood in a line waiting to be sacrificed and you know something is going to happen before the axe descends on our hero and surprise surprise, reprieve comes at the very last second in the form of a solar eclipse. This was prophesied earlier by a young girl who appeared to be dying from smallpox.
After the eclipse, the sacrifices are no longer needed and Chief Bad Man is told to dispose of them. Being Bad Men they don’t think to sell them or let them go, instead they play a game with them where they are allowed to go free if they can run a gauntlet of armed hunters with spears, bows, clubs and knives and get back to the jungle. Needless to say many of the tribe are killed before our hero manages to escape, killing the son of the Chief Bad Man in the process.
This is where it turns into a straightforward revenge movie. Bad Man wants revenge on Good Man for killing his son and Good Man wants revenge on Bad Man for killing all his tribe. The last hour or so is mainly these people running around in the jungle and getting killed. The inevitable showdown happens back near the old village and finally good triumphs over evil. The hole that our hero left his wife and child in at the beginning of the film has been filling up with water from the rain (it is a big hole so it must have been raining like a bastard for weeks) and his newest child has been born during his absence so he has to rescue them too before they can walk off into the sunset together.
Much like Rites of Spring, there is a question of what happened to the children here. In Rites, a kidnapped girl walks into the forest never to be seen again and here the children are left behind when the tribe is kidnapped and are never seen again. Likewise there are plenty of tribesmen left at the end of the sadistic game when the Bad Guys run off after the one that got away and their fate is never addressed. If they weren’t painted blue I’d call them redshirts.