Mel Gibson decided to make an action movie in Mayan America, in Mayan. He really is a crazy person, and he’s the exact kind of crazy person who should be getting tens of millions of dollars to make movies, because he took one of the weirdest ideas for a relatively large budgeted action movie and made it work pretty much flawlessly. He understands character, escalating tension, theme, and the mechanics of action filmmaking so well that he can seemingly do this in any environment and setting.
Jaguar Paw is a young hunter in a small village in Mayan America before the arrival of Europeans. His father, Flint Sky, is a steadying hand that explains the movie’s core concept, that fear is a disease. Brought on by the arrival of a terrified group from a foreign tribe passing through their forest for safety, from what they don’t say, the advice ends up weaving through the rest of the movie rather elegantly. The opening scenes are mostly about building a sense of character around the archetypal hero and those around him, creating a strong sense of community in this small village. The movie takes its time to show us little moments like the mother-in-law to Blunted, who demands a grandchild, pushing him into his hut with his wife and the effects of a prank that Flint Sky plays on Blunted in his quest for children. There’s time with an old storyteller and the easy feeling of calm that rests over the village in normal times.
Those times, of course, are not meant to last, and the reigning Mayan king’s soldiers, led by Zero Wolf, arrive for captives. The attack on the village is filled with brutality, and it often becomes hard to watch when matched with Gibson’s affinity for film gore. Hunters die defending their families. Women are carried off-screen for rapes. Children are left crying helplessly as they watch their entire world burn before them, and it’s all just the start. Jaguar Paw manages to get his wife and young son into a hole by the village, but he’s captured before he can do anything else. Zero Wolf, along with his soldiers including his son Cut Rock, lead the captives away from their village, tied together, over mountains, across rivers, and through a deforested area until they finally reach the city. The steady build of terror around these sights, matched by a well-executed soundtrack including an ominous score from James Horner, escalates until they reach the collection of pyramids at the city’s center. The entire journey is about fear, calling back to Flint Sky’s words to his son. Fear builds within everyone as they face physical challenges, brutality, and finally strange new sights with little to no explanation. This is where the choice to set the story in such an unfamiliar world to most viewers really pays off because the new world ends up feeling as strange to the audience as to Jaguar Paw, allowing us to share in the base emotion.
The ritual sacrifice at the movie’s center is actually quite interesting. Based on looks that the priest and the nearby king share, it’s obvious that they know that what they’re doing will never appease Kukulkan, their god. Whether they believe in the god at all is up for grabs, but they’ve obviously timed the sacrifices with the solar eclipse they know is coming, using it to try and placate their screaming people below, providing some way to explain away the crop failures and disease that are undermining the society. The ruling elite have no real answers, so they descend into ceremony and fear for their people, to keep those people in line and themselves in power. And, absolutely none of it is said explicitly. It’s done through subtle looks from some characters we’ve never seen before. This is really the joy of cinematic storytelling. You can get so much from so little.
So, Jaguar Paw is fortunate enough to be the one on the pedestal when the moon hides the sun, sparing his life, but the bloodletting was never for Kukulkan. Their lives were never important one way or the other to the ruling class, so what do they do with them when their role in the ruse is done? Dispose of them, of course. Jaguar Paw manages to get away, killing Cut Rock in the process, and the final chase is on. Zero Wolf has every motivation to pursue Jaguar Paw for days back to Jaguar Paw’s forest. As Zero Wolf and his group of hunters gives chase, the hunters get picked off one by one by the forest, starting with an attack by actual jaguar. Fear grips them as they get closer to Jaguar Paw’s forest where he has the knowledge of the land and the advantage. The action is dynamic and exciting while also clear and easy to understand. The best bit is probably when Jaguar Paw does a large circle from a single spot to get behind the approaching hunters and hit one with some poison darts.
Apocalypto is a journey into another world filled with strange sights and sounds. It’s so far removed from most people’s experiences that it’s almost like it’s set on a different planet, but that’s wholly to the movie’s advantage. The film leans strongly into that strangeness while telling a very clear story of there and back again with a central character who has a clear motivation for getting back to help the woman and child he left in a hole with no way out to protect them. The antagonists have motives that are just as clear and understandable. The simple nature of the story is partially key in the telling of a tale in a place so far removed from what the audience knows, and, more importantly, Gibson keeps the intensity and interest up for a whole 140 minutes. Apocalypto is just a great action film and a great time at the movies.