February 18, 2008

Mini-review: Apocalypto

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. Click here for the full list.)

Apocalypto (2006)
Written by Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia
Directed by Mel Gibson

Oh, Crazy Hollywood Star With Insanely Expensive Vanity Project, where would we be without you? I just keep thinking of what a poorer and blander world it would be without such personal disasters, projects that are clear from the first minute to the audience that they should've never been made, but with producers who were throwing so much cash around that no one wanted to bother telling them. And after the violence-laced, Jew-hating Mel Gibson vanity project The Passion of the Christ in 2004, there was really no reason to expect much from his even more bizarre vanity-project follow-up, an epic about the decline of the lost Mayan Empire of ancient Central America called Apocalypto, once again featuring an entire soundtrack recorded in a dead language, financed by Gibson himself with Lethal Weapon money because nobody else would. And thus did the film come and go with not much fanfare in 2006, unfortunately at the same time as a real-life drunken Jew-hating incident on the part of Gibson, which sadly ended up much overshadowing the press that the film itself received.

Ah, but here's the big surprise about Apocalypto -- it's good. It's very good, as a matter of fact, or at least from such formalist aspects as cinematography, pacing, costumes and makeup, albeit featuring a script not much more complex than a typical children's fairytale. And in fact, this is the first thing to understand about the film in order to enjoy it -- that Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia are taking on a lost civilization here, one that (despite what the end of this movie shows) actually died out 600 years before white people first discovered their society's remains. Many aspects of Mayan history are still unknown to us, including what caused their decline in the first place; what this movie is, then, is a look at the details of their society that we do know and can confirm (mostly concerning architecture, clothing, body decorating and the like), couched in a simple folktale so that the details of that lost history are not really that important to the telling of this particular story. I mean, Gibson does definitely use the film's storyline to make some political points; for example, he embraces here an academic theory about the society's downfall that is highly controversial, that the massive amount of trees they needed to burn, to create the heat to make the limestone "concrete" they used for their buildings, in effect created an ecological disaster that eventually killed them all because of disease and lack of food. These moments, however, are thankfully few and far between; the main story is simply about a teenage warrior from a rural village, who in the first half of the film participates in various details of village life and in the second half is a captured slave in the region's largest city, with Gibson using the rest of his energy to create the complex visual canvas on display.


And indeed, I can honestly say that this is one of the most visually flabbergasting movies I've ever seen, and that in this rare case I think it was actually smart of Gibson to go with a deliberately simple script so as to concentrate on the imagery more; just really, honestly, one of the best-looking films I've ever seen, bringing the old colorful artwork of the Mayan Empire to vivid 3D life. A main reason for this, in fact, is because Gibson picked up a lesson or two from the Peter Jackson schoolbook, and ended up physically creating almost every single element you see in the finished movie, using computer effects as little as humanly possible; it turns the experience into a sumptuous feast for the eyes, literally what you would imagine Cecil B. DeMille making if he just happened to live in our times and have access to our technology. If Gibson had attempted a more complex story, he just would've failed (let's admit it), which would've made everyone focus more on that and lose sight of the filmic details on display; that's why I think it was so smart of him to go with essentially a two-hour folktale here, even though as a former writer myself I usually dislike such reliance on simplicity in creative projects.

In fact, I'll go as far as to say this -- that it's a shame that Gibson didn't just make this as his first third film (oh yeah, that's right, he directed Braveheart and The Man Without a Face too), and skip The Passion of the Christ altogether, in that instead of people having to be guilty fans of his, the general populace would think of him as a freaking genius if Apocalypto were the only of the two films to exist. It's a lesson Gibson hopefully learned from the experience, that he's at his best with a simple story that doesn't aim too high, allowing him to wallow in the formalist qualities of film which is where he really shines. Let's hope he applies it all to the next movie he has in store for us, and leaves behind all the Jew-baiting nonsense for good.

Out of 10: 8.6

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:23 AM, February 18, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |