There’s a plethora of negatives attached to this film that will no doubt keep the majority of happy-go-lucky cinema pundits away. It’s directed by Mel Gibson, whose last film was a religious horror, and whose name has been in the press attached to bad things like alcohol, crazy relatives and Jew-bashing. It’s subtitled due to the use of a weird ancient Mayan dialect. It has a cast of complete unknowns. It has a relatively graphic use of violence. And it’s about some ancient weird tribe-folk, so what the hell has that got to do with us joyful Westerners?
But could you just do something for me? Forget who made it. Accept that ancient Mayans would not speak “American”. And just watch it as one of those great films with a great hero who must face a difficult journey filled with adventure. Because that’s all it is. Strip away all the supposed alienating qualities and you’ve got a basic adventure story. And you know what? It’s bloody good.
I of course had my reservations. But within the opening five minutes I was instantly engaged. These strange men, with bones through their noses, spouting a weird language and living in a forest are shown bantering, playing practical jokes and complaining about their mother-in-laws. The unknown suddenly becomes the familiar, and all it took was five minutes. It seems that Gibbo’s a clever story-teller.
What follows is a bracing tale as our hero ‘Jaguar Paw’ is taken away from his family and must make a dangerous trip in order to return to them. I won’t go into any further detail to avoid ruining it (unlike most other reviewers) but as guide to how absorbing the story is, I didn’t feel like I’d been sitting for 139 minutes, I forgot that the cinema was about minus five in temperature, and I accidentally drank my companions drink instead of my own (sorry about that).
Violence is present, but in a controlled fashion, so that the worst injuries are more suggested with quick editing than gratuitously put on screen. The actual gore is far less than that in your Hostel or Saw genre, but because you feel more for the characters the impact is tenfold. I know I’m not too fussed with your basic impaling and beheading, but my (now drink-less) companion is not a fan of violence in the slightest, but found it to be just about manageable.
You could try to read into the film, maybe finding a crazed religious leader taking too much pride in his land, destroying the earth and needlessly sacrificing men a little too familiar. But let’s not – let’s just watch it for what it is. A film with good characters, tension, excitement, (making me mentally utter the famous line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “run away! Run away!”) strong direction and even a tapir-mounted camera. Come on – a camera on the back of a running tapir. How can you not like it?
Of course, the story isn’t quite deep enough to warrant a huge emotional or intellectual impact, and the sprint to the finish ends in more of a half-hearted jog than a beefy finale that might’ve satisfied a little more. But this is still a good film. Keeping in mind the CF ratings have been updated (see the review of 2006), I’m awarding Apocalypto a point for being exciting, engaging and surprisingly fabulous, and another point for having a camera on a tapir, bringing it to CF2. Ignore everything you think will be bad, overcome your prejudices against the director and the subtitles, and you will be nicely surprised.