Sometimes the best way to critique a culture is to remove everything that is familiar and common within that culture, and then tell a story. Science fiction has done this for years to great success. The removal of the familiar can strip one’s eyes of cultural blinders, and allow the story to be more richly brought to the forefront.
Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto does just this. I saw this movie over the weekend still uncertain about the film’s plot before I watched it. It contains not a word of spoken English (all the characters speak in Mayan), and there is little context for the violent atrocities that serve as the backdrop of the story. Still, Gibson manages to use sparing contextual elements to frame one of Apocalypto’s major motifs: the clash of civilizations.
The Will Durant quote which appears at the film’s opening sums up well Gibson’s intent:
“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”
Gibson displays well the difficulty of maintaining tradition. Those who seek to preserve a way of life often become moving targets for those who would seek to serve their own needs.
The plot revolves around a village of forest hunters who are attacked and captured for human sacrifice by a more “civilized” group of city-dwellers. During the attack, a hunter named Jaguar Paw manages to hide his pregnant wife and child in a deep well. Jaguar Paw is taken away, and the stage is set for him to attempt to escape and return to his family.
I won’t reveal much more, but this film has one of the best chase scenes in cinematic history. There are many Gibson-esque moments throughout the film that reminded me of watching Braveheart over a decade ago. It’s really too bad that Gibson helped ruin the release of one of his best works by his bizarre drunken anti-semitic rant last year. The film stands taller than its troubled director.
I will give one warning: the movie does depict a lot of violence. It’s not as bloody as The Passion of the Christ, but the body count does compare with Braveheart.
[9 out of 10]