Apocalypse Now, Aguirre: Wrath Of God... It’s de rigueur to go nuts in the jungle. Take a camera and kiss sanity goodbye. But whatever Mel Gibson might have left in the Yucatan (that beard, for one), it wasn’t his talent. The pre-release talk is tabloid-tainted; and there has been subtextual chat of the parallels between the Mayan Empire on the slide and the America’s imperialist operation in Iraq, but on-screen Gibson is straightforward. He’s made a chase. And you’ve got to keep up.
At first glance Apocalypto may seem intimidating – death, mist, subtitles – but within 30 seconds you forget all of that. A tapir is cornered; a corpse dissected; body parts doled out; jokes played. There’s an instant rapport with the young warriors on screen, lead by Jaguar Paw (the magnetic Youngblood), on the cusp of maturity, but still not beyond talking balls.
Gibson is a refreshingly unpretentious filmmaker. He doesn’t mind if it takes toilet humour to make you care and through the first act joshing he ensures the investment of more emotion in the indigenous heroes than Terrence Malick did with 150 minutes of artful noodling in The New World. But that’s not to say he’s without art. Apocalypto is terrifically made; the action sequences shot with dazzling skill by Dances With Wolves’ DoP Dean Semler, the rainforests a beautiful blur as Youngblood races for his life – and that of his family. There’s an exhilarating sense of rhythm and a good deal of daring; a POV shot from a severed head one of several bravado moments. There’s nothing polite about this picture: it’s bloody and relentless, the definition of lean and mean. The early village attack is devastating – a massacre echoing the horrors of history from Sand Creek to Mai Lai. It’s ironic, given recent headlines, that the filmmaker Apocalypto most readily evokes is DW Griffith: that mixture of artist and vulgarian that chimes inside so many of us (whether we like to admit it or not). This is Gibson’s death of a nation.
As the action amps up and melodrama piles on melodrama in the third act, it’s almost ridiculously OTT. It’s Braveheart in the jungle, with all the guilty pleasure, crassness and adrenaline that implies. After the seriousness of Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ – uncomfortable because it was an act of devotion that played like a lovingly-rendered horror movie – Apocalypto feels like a natural filmmaker unleashed. When the brief epilogue plays out, there’s the sense that the film’s final scene could be the first of another. It’s a measure of Apocalypto’s effectiveness that even two hours in, such a new beginning would be embraced.