Review: Apocalypto (2006)

Mel Gibson’s Mayan epic begins with an epigraph from historian Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” Gibson’s latest film focuses on the self-destruction of the Mayan civilization from the perspective of one man’s attempt to save his family. Like his Scottish epic, Braveheart (1995), Apocalypto has only the most tenuous of connections with the actual history of the Mayan race, but this does not deter him in the least. When it comes to film, Gibson has never been interested in history. As one can see most clearly in The Passion of the Christ, what drives Gibson is not historical reality but rather a particular kind of vision—a kind of aesthetic sight that gives him the liberty to distort reality in order to tell the story he wishes to communicate. For all his myriad faults, Gibson at least understands that art is not a textbook about reality but an encounter with it.

In Apocalypto, again as with Braveheart and Passion, Gibson tells the story of one person, one family, in place of many people and many families. Here it is Jaguar Paw, a young leader in his tribe. Jaguar is clearly parallel to William Wallace and Jesus of Nazareth in Gibson’s other films, and it becomes clear in Apocalypto that he is simply telling his own version of the Christ story in different forms. As with his past movies, the story of Jaguar Paw functions as a kind of metanarrative: it is a narrative snapshot that seeks to give an iconic window into a much larger story. The epic narrative of Wallace is representative of the broader struggle for sociopolitical freedom not only in Scotland but in other countries as well, including the United States (hence Gibson’s involvement in The Patriot). The story of Christ’s passion is obvious and serves as a kind of leitmotif throughout all of Gibson’s films. Finally, the story of Jaguar Paw is a very focused narrative (the film rarely strays away from him throughout the 158 minutes) which is representative of societal self-destruction. Just as Braveheart is about more than simply the freedom of Scotland from English rule, so too Apocalypto is about more than simply the collapse of the Mayan culture. Gibson uses these individual men (they are always male) to tell much grander stories about national freedom, cultural collapse, or humanity’s salvation. What Gibson does right is convey something very abstract through localized and concrete imagery.

Where Gibson goes wrong, however, is another story altogether. If there is anything that holds these films together apart from the Christ complexes of each main character, it is violence. Gibson, it seems, is incapable of telling a story which is not replete with exceedingly violent images. One almost gets the sense from Passion that he makes up for his nonviolent lead character by escalating the violence perpetrated by the Roman soldiers. Apocalypto stands much closer to Braveheart in terms of its story and replicates a storyline that has become boringly standard fare in Hollywood today: one man fights off dozens of other men in an attempt to rescue his family. We’ve seen this kind of story elsewhere, but Gibson just happens to excel at making this kind of film. When it comes to unnecessarily violent epics, Gibson is in a league all his own.

The question is: who in their right mind would seek to join him? Gibson may be the best at making blood-and-gore epics, but being the best does not make it right or even worth watching. He turns every aspect of human existence into a matter of warfare: a story about national politics is about warring nations; a story about cultural collapse is about cultural warfare and violent self-destruction; and a story about human salvation becomes a story of spiritual warfare. At every turn, Gibson militarizes human existence. He makes the violent struggle between life and death paradigmatic for all other human struggles. In a sense, his films dramatize the logical fallacy of the false dilemma: kill or be killed, there is no other option. Gibson’s “gift,” it seems, is the ability to make this logical fallacy not only seem plausible but justifiable. Whether this is indeed a gift or a mark of human sinfulness I will leave to others to decide.

In the addition to the violence, the film is marred by an ironic religious-cultural subtext. On the basis of the epigraph, we are led to see the story of Jaguar Paw as representative of the Mayan culture’s self-destruction—a self-destruction which provides the basis for Mayan defeat at the hands of European settlers. The events in the film preceding the arrival of European settlers—viz. the violent episodes involving Jaguar Paw and his family—are thus meant to flesh out (pun not intended) the epigraph. The Mayan civilization is conquered from without only because it has destroyed itself from within, and according to the film, the Mayan self-destruction consists of pillaging, murdering, raping, enslaving, and finally sacrificing fellow humans—even people from neighboring tribes—for the sake of their pagan religion. One might say that Apocalypto is a film about the clash of two religions, one pagan and the other Christian, whose outcome is determined by the internal clashes within the pagan culture. Its “thesis,” if I can be allowed to speak this way, seems to be that the Mayan civilization collapsed because of a religiously motivated disregard for human life. The Mayan gods are ruthless and bloodthirsty, and apparently they demand the hearts and heads of fellow Mayans in order to be appeased.

On the basis of the foregoing, one might naturally conclude that Apocalypto presents the European colonizers as a superior culture. Perhaps the Mayans even deserve their defeat because of their pagan religious practices. Such a subtext is really not all that surprising, coming from Gibson. His adherence to a Eurocentric Catholicism no doubt colors his approach to historical epics. In the end, Apocalypto comes off as an attempt to justify the European colonization of Latin America by showing how the Mayans had already brought about the disintegration of their culture. They were going to fall apart anyway; the Europeans just continued what the Mayans already began.

There is, of course, some ambiguity. Gibson does not make it entirely clear what constitutes the cultural self-destruction of the Mayans. It could be the massacring and enslaving of fellow Mayans; it could be the practice of human sacrifice; it could be the worship of pagan gods. In the end, these are all aspects of the same thing: a worship of pagan gods that demands the taking of human life. The irony is that Gibson seems to have no qualms with taking human life, as long as it is not part of pagan religious rituals. Killing to free your country (Braveheart, The Patriot) and killing to save your family (Jaguar Paw) are perfectly acceptable, but not cultic sacrifice. A theological question immediately arises: on what basis can one so easily distinguish between right and wrong killing? How does one not end up applying the ten commandments arbitrarily? And how is nationalistic killing not itself worship of an idol—the idol of one’s country? Did not Jesus say to hate one’s family and even life itself in order to follow him? Would this not entail the refusal to kill in order to save one’s family? Is this not the kind of sacrifice we must be capable of making in order to follow Christ? And, finally, does Gibson truly escape the obvious criticism that he turns the Christian God in Passion into a bloodthirsty deity who demands the taking of human life in order to be appeased?

Mel Gibson is certainly capable of making exciting films, and his refusal to turn movies into historical documentaries is something I find admirable. But I cannot help coming to the conclusion that his conceptions of God, foreign cultures, and humanity in general are fundamentally flawed. I have always strenuously argued against any attempt to use morality as the basis for judging the quality of a work of art, but when it comes to Gibson’s films, I am sorely tempted to change my position.


Anonymous said…
David. I'm yet to see the film but after reading your very well-written review I think I'll make an effort to.

Some time ago I came across this statement re the genre of horror: 'The reason why I like the horror and thriller genres is because of the great potential they have to evoke a visceral gut feeling of the reality of real genuine evil in a postmodern world that denies absolutes and is increasingly deluded into thinking that evil is a relative cultural construction.'

Do you think that there is any sense in which Gibson might be trying to do the same?

'For all his myriad faults, Gibson at least understands that art is not a textbook about reality but an encounter with it'. Love this sentence.

Many thanks.
Mykel G. Larson said…
Well, I have not seen Apocalypto, however. . .

As far as Gibson's use of violence in these films, it has to be understood in the context of the historical period in which he is recreating it.

In Braveheart, war *was* the reality - and the brutality and realism that Gibson brought to those battles, while gruesome, was appropriate. It was part of the reality the denizens of Scotland had to deal with during that time.

The same goes for Passion. Yes, it was brutal and gruesome, and much violence was present. But I think Gibson is on to something with portraying violence in all it's ugliness and realism - he doesn't attempt to pretty it up or sugar coat it. He makes it real, and in a way, from my estimation, connects with the audience how terrible this sort of violence is - and in perhaps a subtle sort of way, is a reminder to us all what we as humans can succumb to when we do not deal properly with the human condition and other issues of the heart.
Anonymous said…
Mykel. In light of your comments, what do you make of the Lethal Weapon series? Just comedy? How many cops do you know who ... etc etc.
Mykel G. Larson said…
Haha, as far as I remember, The Lethal Weapon series of films came from the mind of Brian De Palma, a mastermind of gratuitious violence for the sake of violence. And, to add a comedic element to all those flicks only makes the violence in those films seem normal - violence is NOT normal.

But there is a different quality and presentation of how Gibson portrays the violence in his films - I don't honestly believe the violence was filmed simply to target a specific demographic. Even in Braveheart, only about 1/4th of the film contains violence - the rest of it has to do with interactions and the emotions between people, suffering something as terrible as that fight for freedom during that time period.

But even beyond all this, I think it is a kind of folly to hold directors/producers responsible for some sort of historical accuracy - they tell stories. And while some creative license may be taken with the facts of history, the use of violence has to be taken into context of the film itself. And as I mentioned earlier, the use of violence by Gibson in his flicks communicates a sincere warning of what can happen when people do not cooperate, love, and be gentle.

Maybe I'm just weird. :D
John P. said…
Thanks, David, for posting on a subject I had been thinking about ever since Apocalypto came out and I had a chance to see it.

I cant help but wonder what kind of critic Rene Girard would make of the Gibson corpus...

as for the violence, i have to agree with you. When it comes to historical accuracy, it is not so much the way that Gibson portrays the brutality of bygone eras...rather, it is the way that violence becomes the means by which all of his Christ figures become "heroic."

This, it seems to me, was the most ridiculous aspect of The Passion. Here we have Jesus being flogged by the Roman soldiers. And just when you think the man of Nazareth has taken his last William Wallace, he musters enough defiance to draw himself back onto the slab for some more appeasing, substitutionary bloodletting. After that, I couldnt tell if I was watching the end of Braveheart or the end of The Passion.

(sidenote: At the end of The Passion, the thief who rejects jesus has his eye gouged out by a divinely inspired(?) crow...if that doesnt exemplify the image of God's grace that Gibson has, i dont know what else does.)

It is not so much that Wallace represented Jesus, but the Jesus seemed like another kind of Wallace. Sure, all the periods that Gibson covers were brutal. But why the "Christ" figure? Perhaps because they are not Christ-figures at all (though Gibson would like them to be), but in fact his own Heroic ideal that is necessarily (As you said) "replete" with a kind of pornographic violence that makes the audience into voyeurs...

(on this point, i would refer you to Augustine's discussion of the gladiatorial games/dramatic theater in The Confessions for a great cultural critique).

Anyway, thanks for touching on this topic. As I said, I have been thinking the same thoughts for some time.
John P.,

Thanks for your wonderfully insightful comments. I think you are spot-on to say that his characters are not Christ-figures but rather that he has manipulated Christ into his own heroic ideal. That's exactly right.
Anonymous said…
or perhaps ugliness as well as beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I did not see the same things you saw in those three films.

What exactly did you not see?

Parenthetically, I don't understand why people like you are incapable of (1) providing a name, and (2) providing an argument to back up your claim, rather than simply appealing to subjective taste. If you're going to comment on this site, don't be a coward. You won't make any friends on here by being one.