The term “auteur” is applied to those directors whose personal stamp is recognizable over their body of work. Similar subjects, stylistic choices and thematic elements can be found in the films of an auteur. Congratulations, Mel Gibson, you are now an auteur.
Starring in “The Road Warrior” and all those “Lethal Weapon” movies obviously taught Gibson how to create a thrilling action scene, because his latest film “Apocalypto” is just that—one big thrilling action scene that goes on forever. Unfortunately, from the quote by historian Will Durant that opens the picture, it is clear Gibson was going for something more.
The statement, written about Rome, says that great civilizations rot from within before the outside forces eventually seal their doom. In “Apocalypto,” Mel shows us nothing more of a Mayan city than its violent, ugly tendencies. What is Gibson trying to say then about the Mayan culture—that if they wouldn’t have enslaved, tortured, and sacrificed their own population, they’d have lasted longer? Wow, what an insight.
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Instead, judging from the length of time that he lets the camera show a man getting his face ripped off by a panther, I’d venture that Mel’s more prurient interests are of higher import. This film plays more like a Top 10 list of Gibson’s sadistic fetishes than a historical epic. It does a disservice to Mayan culture to portray them only as savages and barbarians, but then those are the only things about them that Mel’s interested in. I understand that Mayans sacrificed humans and blood flowed like water around the temples, but how many shots of decapitated heads and bodies do we need to get the idea?
If the violence had something to say, like the shocking and realistic gore in Spielberg’s “Munich,” then there would be a reason for it. Instead, Gibson is more excited about finding creative ways to kill his characters than he is about discussing what might make a culture extinct. It’s a big budget slasher film in the jungle. Essentially, the movie becomes one long chase, reducing the characters to action figures—although I don’t think Wal-Mart will be selling “Apocalypto” Human Sacrifice Temple Playsets anytime soon.
“Apocalypto” is not historically accurate, and Gibson doesn’t claim that it is. That’s fine, but it has more in common with every modern Hollywood crowd pleaser than anything else, complete with crotch jokes, nagging mother-in-laws, and silly dialogue. Just because the film is spoken in Yucatec, a virtually dead language, doesn’t mean that this is art house fare. When one Mayan warrior is bitten by a poisonous snake, his friend says to the others (in subtitles of course), “He’s f**ked.”
Affable young villager Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is torn away from his family and forced to march in shackles to the giant city to await a darker fate, but yearns to be back with his pregnant wife and child, whom he has left at the bottom of a well. Gibson skillfully builds up suspense with every action scene, careful to keep us involved with every mounting conflict, like a good episode of TV’s “24.”
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Eventually, however, the movie wears you down until the never-ending stream of conflicts are so over-the-top and implausible that it becomes comical. On his way back into the jungle with the Mayan warriors chasing him, Jaguar Paw becomes nothing more than a primitive MacGyver, improvising death traps for his pursuers with nothing but the tools of the jungle! And don’t get me started on the ending.
Gibson has said that “Apocalypto” can be read as an allegory for today’s society, but that just doesn’t work. That’s like saying “Talladega Nights” was a serious wake-up call for NASCAR fans everywhere. You can’t decry a culture’s behavior and then revel in its viciousness at the same time.
From “Braveheart” to “The Passion of the Christ” and now “Apocalypto,” Mel has shown his tendency towards ancient times, outdoor locations, martyrdom, and sheer bloody torture is no coincidence. It’s an infatuation. Would any other director dare to—or be allowed to—make a movie like this? I doubt it. Now that he has established himself as an auteur, everybody will know what to expect from a Mel Gibson movie. Let’s just hope that his next film will have a purpose beyond showcasing the director’s fetish for extreme carnage.