Apocalypto tells the simplistic, primal tale of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) trying to save his family, amidst the end of the great Mayan Civilization. After his village is rampaged buy a fierce tribe, Jaguar Paw hides his family in a cave and is taken to be sacrificed. Amidst scenes of beheadings, and hearts being pulled out of people's chests, Jaguar Paw manages to be spared his fate and he even escapes. Thus begins one of the greatest foot chases in modern filmmaking, where we get to see Jaguar Paw's ingenuity win out against much bigger and stronger foes. Mel Gibson has made a highly engaging story that gives you all the history you need, while providing one of the most viscerally entertaining films in recent years. Stripped away of all artifice, this movie manages to develop both it's characters and story through the action.
Casting complete unknowns was the best way to bring this motion picture across. I could list out all the cast members, but even I wasn't sure who was who. (Truth be told, until I sat down to type up my review, I didn't know that the main character's name was Jaguar Paw). However, this lack of recognition is precisely why this movie works as much as it does. We can't come to something like this was any preconceived notions. If we saw Tom Cruise decked out in war paint, we would never fully believe that he had anything to lose. Afterall, he is Tom Cruise. All the characters in the film embody certain types that we have come to expect in our cinema experiences. As I mentioned, Gibson has stripped this story down to it's most classic, bare form. At times I felt as if I was watching a documentary, and seeing as how we get to see a lot more than we probably want to (this film is brutal and not for the faint of heart), I felt captivated by the situations the characters faced.
The look of Apocalypto was also pretty startling. Quite simply, they just don't make movies like this anymore. No doubt parts of it are in CGI, the fact that I wasn't able to differentiate what was and wasn't (and really didn't care to), speaks heavily to Apocalypto's ability to pull it's viewers. I screened the film at the Icon Production offices on a video projector. With titles coming up a few times to tell me where CGI things were going to be, I still feel I got the full breadth and depth of this film. Gibson has made a classic foot race through the jungle, and it is the unknowns that help create the greatest tension. However, Jaguar Paw seems quite at home here, and just when you think he is going to be overwhelmed by the situation, he shows you how some aspect of his culture has given him the tools to survive.
At no point in the viewing experience did I feel manipulated. The story starts and does a very good job of making us care about all the characters. In a weird way, the dialogue is almost unimportant because by virtue of the characters body language and facial expressions, we get the full gist of what all these characters are saying and going through. All this does is help create tension because you know from the very beginning that this tribe is doomed. That their fate is a foreshadowing of what is to come for the Mayan people. At it's core, Apocalypto is a celebration of that humanity and spirit that never goes away, regardless of what happens to a civilization as a whole. Whether it's through advances in things like science, math, and writing, or things even more cerebral like cultural virtues, Apocalypto is a reminder that these people will always be with us.
All in all, I think we have a film that could certainly be an Oscar contender. Mel Gibson, regardless of what you might think of him personally, is truly one of the most visionary directors working today. He has shown with all his films an unbridled passion for his projects, and in doing do has taken both himself and his career to another level. Apocalypto represents a new stage and a new step amidst this artist's amazingly complex journey.