Sunday, January 6, 2008

Notes on Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto"

I finally got around to watching “Apocalypto,” Mel ("I'm not a drunken anti-semite") Gibson’s follow-up to “The Passion of the Christ.” I was not sure what to expect, other than violence. But could the violence match the spectacle of “Passion,” a film I have on more than one occasion referred to as “The Greatest Snuff Film of All Time?”

Yes and no. Yes, “Apocalypto” matches in spectacle, but it is nowhere nearly as horrific in its violence. Instead, it goes for something different: an average action/adventure/chase story loaded with more subtext than the average Congressional bill has pork.

WARNING! The rest of this entry is loaded with spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, I’m going to walk you through the movie and take you through my thoughts more or less as I had them.

“Apocalypto” opens with a bunch of Happy Pre-Columbian Jungle Dwelling Villagers engaged in a tapir hunt. When they finally kill the tapir, there is a gratuitous slow-motion shot of the trap going of that told my spider-sense that we were experiencing foreshadowing. (And was it ever, as we shall see.)

The Happy Pre-Clombian Jungle Dwelling Villager Hunting Party gather around that tapir and Our Hero, a hunter named Jaguar Paw, distributes pieces of the animal to others in the party. They all appear to be brothers hunting with their father (named Flint Sky), but this is never made absolutely clear. Three of the hunters are given the heart, the liver and the ears, but one hunter (named Blunted, for all too obvious reasons) is given the testicles. Blunted is disappointed and offended, and lets his brother Jaguar Paw know it while their father, Flint Sky, looks on.

Blunted is embarrassed because he has not been able to father a child. Jaguar Paw insists Blunted eat the tapir’s testes to give him virility an potency, claiming Flint Sky did the same thing to father all his children. Flint Sky nods solemnly, but in such a way as to tell the viewer it’s a setup… and Blunted is the Big Dumb Galoot of the village.

We are then entreated to an all too graphic scene of Blunted attempting to eat the testes, and almost barfing from it, to the amusement of the others. Eventually, Blunted starts laughing too, delighting in the joke.

Okay, I’m thinking, this must be more foreshadowing: Blunted is going to be instrumental in the plot and he’s going to get some form of vindication later on.

But it doesn’t stop there: his father, taking pity on him, gives him some special leaves to rub on his genitals the next time he performs his Marital Duties with his wife. Of course, I could already guess where this is heading.

By this point I’m thinking the director must have big plans for Blunted as a supporting character. Maybe use this social abuse as a means of working in a metaphor about brotherly love, christian forgiveness, etc. That, and by the end Blunted will probably knock up two or three women in one night, showing up his brothers and old man, right?

Sigh… sadly, that is not the case. But we’ll get there.

Before the “burning balls” scene, the hunting party encountered a bunch of other villagers on the run from unnamed pursuers. These same pursuers, of course, come to destroy the village, kill a bunch of people, and take the survivors (save for the children who are abandoned and never seen again for the rest of the film) to their city. Jaguar Paw also hides his very pregnant wife and their young son in a dry well, which succeeds in providing both a sub-plot (how the mother and child survive down there) and a motivation for Jaguar Paw to escape from his captors.

Some issues I had with the destruction of the village:

Problem 1 - Blunted’s wife is killed during this. Okay, maybe Blunted will find new love in the Mayan city to which they are being taken…

Problem 2 - Blunted appears to be mortally wounded, but on a slow decline. How is he going to survive the hole in his belly?

Problem 3 - The bad guys were painfully clearly Bad Guys. They sneer, laugh with evil joy, and are only lacking Snidely Whiplash mustaches to twirl, they are so damn evil! How boring. We are also given a “noble bad guy” named Zero Wolf. He leads the raiding party and becomes Jaguar Paw’s main nemesis. Zero Wolf starts out as a guy with a dirty assignment just doing his job. He later becomes driven by vendetta when Jaguar Paw kills Zero Wolf’s son during his escape from the Mayan City. At times I liked Zero Wolf better than Jaguar Paw; to the point that I was almost sorry to see Zero Wolf die, later in the film. Mel Gibson take note: it’s never good to have your villains more sympathetic than your heros. But I digress…

Anyway: so the bad guys come and destroy the village, kidnap the viable adults and walk them to a Mayan city (I won’t go into the historical inaccuracies portrayed there).

In the Mayan city there are plenty of gore-filled sacrifice scenes. In fact, the sacrifices were kind of Catholic in their pageantry, but I doubt that was Gibson’s intent. The now Not So Happy Villagers are brought up, one by one to have their hearts torn out and heads cut off.

When it’s Jaguar Paw’s turn, he is saved by a timely solar eclipse: the eclipse is the signal that the sun god is satisfied with the sacrifices. Jaguar Paw and the rest of the survivors are then to be disposed of via target practice. This is where three things take place:

  1. Jaguar Paw escapes, setting the rest of the film in motion.
  2. Jaguar Paw kills Zero Wolf’s son, giving the antagonist reason for his pursuit.
  3. Blunted is killed, making this viewer ask: “Why did his peers torture him, only to have him killed off? It doesn’t make storytelling sense!” (It did later, I realized.)
Once Jaguar Paw makes it into the jungle “Apocalypto” becomes a standard Rambo-like chase flick in which Our Hero picks off the pursuers one by one using only his wits and the resources of the environment. And, yes, that foreshadowing at the beginning of the film comes to pass. Zero Wolf is dispatched by the same hunting trap that killed the tapir.

In an interesting twist, there are still two bad guys left pursuing Jaguar Paw after Zero Wolf dies. I wondered why Gibson would do that… the answer? For the sake of the climax. Our Hero Jaguar Paw is saved by… the Catholic Church!

I am not making this up.

Jaguar Paw and his two pursuers reach the beach and stop dead in their tracks at the sight of sailing ships moored just off shore. A rowboat full of soldiers and priests, brandishing a very large, very visible cross, rose towards them. The two remaining bad guys forget about their quarry and walk, mesmerized, towards the rowboats.

Our Hero sees his chance and breaks for it. Jaguar Paw rescues his family from the well and they run off into the forest to hide - but not before his wife looks imploringly at the sailing ships and asks her husband if they should not go to them. Jaguar Paw, quite intelligently, says “no,” trusting no one after his brush with the Maya. His wife looks back with some regret and then they walk into the jungle… …roll credits.

Parts of this movie were just not making sense to me until I saw the ships at the beach. Then it all started coming together.

First, let’s talk about the opening scenes involving the hunters, village life, and the social maltreatment of Blunted, the local pariah. Ostensibly these are the scenes of the “idealistic simple happy life” the forest dwellers have before the bad guys came and destroyed everything. It left me uneasy, because the cruelty - outright cruelty - shown to the big guy was wrong. It departs from formula, here, because no lesson of tolerance is given. The abuse is accepted, even by Blunted, who finds it funny… but this is not about realism. It’s about subtext. It is actually a scorn shown by the filmmaker for his characters: they are, when you get down to it, dumb savages who enjoy torturing one another. The are so dumb they even enjoy being tortured by one another, to an extent. Clearly they need to be taught about Right Living and How to Play Nice With Others.

That’s why so many get to die. That’s why the children are abandoned and never heard from again. That’s why, at the end of the movie, all the women and men who are not killed during the raid are sold as slaves, sacrificed to the gods or used as target practice: they deserve it for being such cruel savages!

And the clearly dying urban Mayan culture we are entreated to are part of the film’s centerpiece? THey deserve their outbreaks of syphilis and leprosy, the failing corn crops, the civil unrest: they are just as much savages as the Now Not So Happy Forest Dwellers!
In the end, we learn, it is only Jesus that can save you. That’s what caused the two remaining pursuers to stop their chase of Jaguar Paw. Even Jaguar Paw’s wife realizes this as she reluctantly follows her husband into the jungle.

With “Passion” Mel Gibson was way too overt.

“Apocalypto” may be a little to subtle. Most viewers will see the Rambo flick, and not the tortured Christian message underlying the story.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like Smurfs vs. Gargamel is more your level of native life depiction.

The Dim Wit said...

Actually, I have an M.A. in anthropology and read ethnography for fun. I know accurate native life depictions, and this ain't it.