Mel Gibson has had a bad year. Apocalypto isn't going to make it any better. Gibson's outline for the piece -- a lengthy, action-filled run-or-die story set in the midst of ancient Mayan culture -- didn't exactly sound like a rousing crowd-pleaser, and his DUI bust and subsequent rantings took even more of the luster off his star power. But Apocalypto isn't as atypical as it may seem -- from Braveheart on, Gibson's directorial efforts have been fairly blood-soaked historical exercises -- and Apocalyto isn't just more of the same, it's entirely too much of the same.
Apocalypto's plot is simple, and you can sense the mythic ideas the script was formed around; a man, captured by killers, has to escape them and race home to save his family. Films about early cultures are always tricky, but you can feel the desire to keep it simple: In many ways, Apocalypto is a pretty stripped-down affair. Our hero is on the hunt, he pauses at home, and then he is in peril and in flight. And yet, the resources brought to bear here and the decisions made -- to shoot in the original Mayan dialect, in Mexico, for a finished film with CGI-effects and huge practical stunts -- bloat that premise up with the kind of excess that money, in fact, can buy. (Shot for approximately $40 million, it's nearly impossible to imagine Apocalypto making more than a quarter of that investment back.) Stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt does a brilliant riff in his act about people who watch historical dramas and impose anachronistic modern sensibilities on them; his example involves mocking a progressive who derides the racial and sexist attitudes of the Old West as depicted in The Searchers. Part of me thought that maybe I was just doing that with Apocalypto, recoiling from an accurate depiction of a long-gone world of vitality and violence that most people in the modern world have no contact with. But I know full well that life in the state of nature is nasty, brutish and short; the fact is that Apocalypto is nasty, brutish and long. The film begins as a group of Mayan hunters chase their prey through the rain forest; after a gore-laden sequence of the men slaughtering their catch mixed with a hokey, possibly-intended-to-be-comic sequence of mother-in-law-jokes and (literal) ball-busting among the hunting party, the hunters see a bloodied, beaten group of men and women moving through the forest. They explain that their village was destroyed; they simply want safe passage. As the hunters -- including the youth Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) -- go home, hunt leader (and Jaguar Paw's father) Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead) decides to not tell the village of the haunted refugees they saw; what would be the point of such sad news? As their own village is attacked by warriors that night, it becomes clear that a warning might have been a good idea. ...
The hunters are taken off to the sacrifice temple of the invaders, and it's here you get a real sense of Gibson's agenda. Any reasonably intelligent person is aware that the Maya practiced human sacrifice; still, if you want to be sure the audience understands, maybe you mention it in exposition; maybe you show it obliquely. What does Gibson do? He gives us a full sacrifice sequence -- complete with every knife puncture, slash and a still-pulsing heart held aloft -- and then, just in case we didn't get it, gives us another. I hate the popular parlor game of psychoanalyzing directors by their work -- and once you meet, say, David Cronenberg, and discover what a warm fellow is behind such cold films, you realize that's a pretty fruitless exercise most of the time, anyhow. But there's such a rank, greasy streak of sadism in Gibson's work -- from Braveheart's disemboweling to The Passion's flogging to the crazy, unending list of gory deaths in Apocalypto -- that you can't help but think that there must be something a little wrong with the guy. Much of the violence in The Passion was written off as being faithful to the depiction of what is at the very least a state-sponsored execution, and also one of the best-known sequences of physical suffering in world literature. After the box office success of The Passion, Gibson could have made any film he wanted; the fact he chose Apocalypto's savage, primal vision is pretty telling.
So, in his first movie in years where Gibson can't defend his love for blood by hiding behind Christ's robes like a naughty child behind his mother's skirts, what do we get? Bloodshed, brutality -- and boredom. In Apocalypto, the ineptitude of the action sequences is almost enough to drown out how bloody they are, and vice-versa. When a character is, say, killed by a panther, you simultaneously find yourself nauseated by the level of effects brought to bear (you witness a jaw dislocated by the panther's bite depicted with almost pornographic attention) and startled by the clumsiness of other filmmaking choices (including a lunging panther-puppet so unconvincing, it's like a 30-year old refugee from the Jim Henson second-hand bin).
And there are other bizarre choices from Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia -- an almost-comical twist ending, and a structure that cuts between Jaguar Paw's chase and his pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) who is trapped in a well -- or, a well-like crevasse -- with their son. Some will insist that Apocalypto is a metaphor -- for the end of empire, for the triumph of humanistic hunter-gatherer cultures over warfaring ones, for man's inhumanity to man -- but Apocalypto's so damn broad and random it's got the sprawling shape of a Rorscach inkblot; look at it long enough, and it can resemble anything you want it to be. But resembling deeper meaning isn't the same thing as having deeper meaning, and who has time for deeper meaning when you can instead offer a slow-mo shot of a leaping, biting rattlesnake? I keep coming back to the violence in Apocalypto, but then again, so does Gibson. And it turns out the Emperor's still naked even when he's covered in blood. Apocalypto is a career-ending flop, and easily the worst movie of 2006.