Apocalypto was not the movie I thought it was going to be. I expected an epic set in the fabricated history of a lost culture, but Mel Gibson’s pre-Columbian tale is actually more of an action movie (with subtitles). Apocalypto has a bit of a split personality that way. Action movies typically don’t have subtitles (because studios usually don’t expect action movie fans to want to read their movie). Subtitled movies usually deal with deeper human themes and complex emotional conflicts, but not this one. While on one hand bringing the Mayan culture to cinematic life (the actors speak in Yucatec Mayan), this movie only gives us a small glimpse of its most notorious part: the human sacrifice. If you want to learn about Mayan history and what life was like back then, this is not the movie to base your term paper on. The cultural part is essentially the dressing on a classic story of one man’s struggle to fight his enemies and save his family.
Taken captive with most of his village, our young hunter-hero Jaguar Paw stages a very lucky escape after he is spared the sacrificial blade himself. Having gotten on the bad side of the enemy’s head thug (he killed the guy’s favourite son), Jaguar Paw must make his way through the jungle to get back home in time to save his pregnant wife and young son (he stashed them in the bottom of a pit to hide them from the invaders when they first came to the village). Other reviewers have made the obvious cinematic pun of nicknaming this movie “Run Jaguar Paw Run” because like the original Lola of German cinema fame, Jaguar Paw does spend a lot of time running (I found it a bit unbelievable how relentlessly he could run, especially as injured as he was; as well as how relentlessly his pursuers followed him). After a soothing mud bath (I wonder which spa paid for the product placement) he is inspired to fight back in John McLean, “yippy kai yay!” style and as his fight with his pursuers reaches a zenith, they see something in the ocean that takes them all aback. I’m not going to reveal what that is, but you can probably guess. Typical tacked-on poli-historical agenda! (It’s kind of a lame ending.)
Anyway, while I was pretty disappointed with the aforementioned cultural details of the Mayan civilization (I’ve been waiting for a Mayan movie since grade 6, folks!), the chase between the bad guys and Jaguar Paw was pretty exciting. (They even added a bit of peril for the Mrs. Paw and Jaguar Jr. to spice it up a bit.) If you put aside the attempts by Gibson at trying to develop the historical context, it’s not a bad movie. It wasn’t even as bloody or gory as all the reviews make it sound. Yes, there’s head rolling, but from a distance. Yes, there’s ripping out of hearts, but you don’t see the actual ripping, and it looks pretty fake anyway. I was going in to the theatre ready for a hemo-drenched splatterama. It wasn’t that bad, but I was very surprised at the family sitting behind me with a 3 or 4 year old son. (Hey kid, that little boy that they put down the hole to save him from the savage slaughter of all his friends and family kind of looks like you!) OK. Now I’m just being mean. At least there was some educational value: we learned that the Mayans used ant mandibles to create sutures to stitch up open wounds. Those clever Mayans! (OK. That’s the last one.)
From the crowds worshipping at the sacrificial pyramid, to the savage attacks and battles, to Jaguar Paw’s guerrilla tactics to take out the enemy; at the end of the day, no one does brutal, violent action movies set in a past historical context like Mr. Gibson. Don’t let the pretentious title or tag-line fool you (“No one can outrun their destiny” my aztec!). If you’re going to enjoy it, just enjoy those other qualities. (3.5 out of 5)