DVD Release Date:  May 22, 2007 
Theatrical Release Date:
December 8, 2006
Rating:  R (for sequences of graphic violence and disturbing images)
Genre:  Action/Drama
Run Time:  137 min.
Director:  Mel Gibson
Actors:  Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez, Ramirez Amilcar, Israel Contreras, Israel Rios

Ever since Mel Gibson directed the amazingly successful The Passion of the Christ, he has been dogged by questions of whether that film is anti-Semitic in its portrait of Jewish complicity in the death of Christ. He also has been accused of reveling in cinematic violence—an action-movie star who chooses violent roles in front of the camera and violent stories to film as a director.

Gibson’s recent outburst after being arrested for drunken driving revealed an ugly streak that emboldened those who believe him to be an anti-Semite. Now, with Apocalypto, the filmmaker gives his detractors plenty of additional evidence to bolster their claim that he has an unseemly obsession with violence.
What’s missing this time is a larger context for the graphic images to which Apocalypto viewers are subject. No central theological debate, as in The Passion of the Christ. No ties to European ancestry and national pride, as in Braveheart. No, Apocalypto is a savage, repellent film that raises serious questions about Gibson’s interest in the worst kinds of human suffering.

The film begins with a group of jungle-dwellers, including Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), living happily as a group. They hunt for their dinner and play practical jokes on each other. Some of these are crude. When one warrior confides that he can’t impregnate his wife, the cruel advice of friends leads him to engage in behaviors that end in public embarrassment.

The tribe’s problems don’t appear to extend beyond these personal problems until word of impending trouble arrives comes from a group of uprooted natives. In the film’s strongest, eeriest sequence, one of the members of the group reveals that they have been chased from their homes by fierce mercenaries. After they continue on their journey, an insightful elder tribesman, sensing fear among the fleeing natives, lays out the film’s central message. “Fear is a sickness,” he tells Jaguar Paw. “It will crawl into your soul. Strike it from your heart.”

With the arrival of the marauding warriors, Jaguar Paw will have to confront his own fears and attempt to overcome them. He and his fellow tribesmen—minus his pregnant wife and child, whom Jaguar Paw hides in a deep pit during the attack on the group—will undergo a lengthy march to a ritual sacrifice, where their blood will be shed to appease a Mayan deity.

In a strange twist, Jaguar Paw finds himself not sacrificed by the Mayans, but on the run from them, determined to return to his wife and child before their lack of food and exposure to natural elements can doom them. Dialogue is minimal, other than Jaguar Paw’s taunts and verbal reminders to himself. As his confidence grows, he remembers the advice from earlier in the film. “I am Jaguar Paw,” he says. “This is my forest. I am not afraid.”

Apocalypto can be divided roughly into three sections. The first section portrays Jaguar Paw’s tribe and their harmonious existence within the jungle. The second section is the long death march of the surviving tribe members. The final section is an extended chase, with several men pursuing Jaguar Paw through the jungle, over a waterfall and on to Jaguar Paw’s destination.

Gibson claims to have made a film that shows how civilizations—in this case, the Mayans—destroy themselves from within. But the film’s message is not coherent. If anything, Apocalypto boils down to one man’s attempts to protect his family from captors, and then free himself in time to rescue his loved ones. On that much diminished level, the film is somewhat effective, but the outcome so strains credulity that it tests any good will viewers might have saved up for the finale. Moreover, the film is so soaked in scenes of stabbings, human organ removal and beheadings that it provokes disgust rather than any sort of thoughtful engagement.

Gibson’s interest in violence was apparent in the director’s Oscar-winning film Braveheart, then confirmed by The Passion of the Christ. But that film’s very subject matter—crucifixion—arguably lent itself to such explicit imagery, leading The Passion and its director to be championed by conservative commentators and many Christians who admired the film and its director’s uncompromising artistic vision.

Apocalypto is an uncompromising artistic vision of its own, but with no theological framework to guide it, it’s difficult to see how this gruesome film could be recommended for Christian audiences of any age. Although technically impressive—the cinematography is outstanding, and the unknown faces cast in leading roles are striking and memorable—Apocalypto is the worst kind of failure. It wraps a tepid tale of a woman and child in peril around a story of violent spectacle, recreated with passion and precision, but never illuminating or edifying. For a film full of intriguing visuals, it’s a remarkably ugly work.