Friday, 19 January 2007

Apocalypto - Review by Emma J Lennox

Director: Mel Gibson
Screenwriter: Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia
Running Time: 139 mins
Certificate: 18

Unveiling his latest historical epic, Apocalypto, producer/co-writer/director, Mel Gibson is adamant his creation will be a cinematic revelation; “audiences have not experienced this before.”Gibson has created an exhilarating vista of tribal life in an ancient civilisation but plot wise it reverts to 'one man against the odds' scenarios as seen before. During production, American journalists criticised Gibson for points he should be commended on; namely creating a mainstream film using a foreign language and casting unknowns in the roles. Yet on its release, disapproval turned to adulation due to the story's concessions to basic action genre set pieces. There are no guns or explosives, but the jungle is a natural resource for inventive weaponry, frogs and jaguars among them. The title is ancient Greek, the language is Yucatec Mayan, the scenery is Mexican, and unfortunately it's target audience is American.

Despite boundaries of language, culture and time differences, Apocalypto engages its audience with a simple human tale as Gibson portrays his characters with a mixture of humour and warmth. The central character is Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), whose fortunate escapes from death, leads him to be sarcastically dubbed 'Almost'. Jaguar Paw's home is a small hunting community in a jungle dwelling tribe but the equilibrium is upset by a fearsome tribe of slave traders who ravage the village. Nothing is left to the imagination in the brutal scenes and blood squirts and limbs fly with exuberance. Enslaved with others from his tribe, Jaguar Paw is lead away to the barbaric society of the Mayan capital.

The subsequent journey is a parable of a civilisation in decline and the tribe witness death, disease and the devastation of nature for an expanding population. In the city they are introduced to the concept of markets and produce, a class hierarchy and corruption. Gibson has emphatically pushed a political rhetoric in his interviews implying there are parallels between the gluttonous lifestyle which signalled the end of the Mayan empire, and the Americans. If this theory exists in the film then it is lost among pulsating hearts and crunched bones. Gibson's hollow words are emphasised by criticisms from history scholars on his pick and mix recreation which condenses the beginning of the Mayan civilisation (tribal hunters) and the end (merchant city) into one time. The scholars even decry the use of an authentic language, because it produces the illusion of a 'window into the past' which Gibson has neglected to uphold. One suspects the forced American perspective is an attempt to appeal to a wider demographic and Hollywood's current trend of socially aware movies including last year's Syriana and upcoming Blood Diamond.

Gibson has a habit of cutting history to fit the story but whilst epics like Gladiator (2000) slip past without controversy, historians sharpen their broadswords for Gibson. It is a wonder that there is so much anticipation of the man formerly associated with Lethal Weapon, and perhaps it is his humble beginnings which now exerts such expectation. The ambition and scale of his productions Braveheart (1995), The Passion of Christ (2004) and now Apocalypto would make D.W Griffith baulk, but mostly this is cosmetic. There may be towering heights and expansive breadths but don't expect to find any depth. Apocalypto is a spectacle film and witnessing hundreds of actors dressed in intricate costumes performing ritual sacrifice is extraordinary. In the city scenes Gibson fills the frame with primal colours, dramatic sets and kinetic energy and it is with reluctance that the audience is transported back into the jungle. But this primitive tale belongs to Jaguar Paw, and using only his instinct and plot hole filling mysticism, he will stop at nothing to get his family back. For insurmountable odds plus a pregnant woman in trouble plus an onslaught of injuries equals a good action movie. Almost.
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