Movie: Apocalypto (2006)
Method: Amazon Prime
Why Did I Watch This?
A for Apocalypto! We open up our 2023 movie catch-up series with this very unique film. There really hasn't been anything like this made before or since. We made a big list but certainly lack the discipline to watch every week. At least for now. We need to get on it. But at the top of my list was Apocalypto. I don't know why, I feel like I've seen a lot of people talk about it recently. Upon release it got almost no mainstream attention but remains a critical and filmmaker's favorite.
My list is tough, I find myself always wanting to see interesting and challenging films but never in a mood to become full invested. This entire year I've been more in "Coast and watch Anchorman 2 (2013)" mode instead of pushing forward with My Dinner with Andre (1981). So that needs to change, but Apocalypto is a good start. I suppose.
How Was It?
I was just on the edge of my "is it racist?" seat the whole time. I don't think it was. Maybe. I really didn't understand this movie when it came out - the entire thing is in Mayan and starring indigenous actors. The basic premise is that a small village on the Yucatan is invaded and taken to be sacrificed by the Mayans. Then a big chase ensues and at the end - ruh roh, white folk show up!
Some folks took issue with the human sacrifices, and sure, there was more to the Mayan civilization than that, but showing a well-rounded villain really takes momentum away from the story. Is there some cultural responsibility to show the significant scientific advancement of an underrepresented civilization? Probably. But the story is pretty cogent in depicting its themes of death, fear, conquering, and fighting. It's totally brutal. It's not the kind of film to slow down and extrapolate. The point is to understand the perspective of the villagers and it does that well.
Now, if you're looking at plot elements to trim to keep the story moving, we could drop the main dude's wife and son slowly drowning in a big hole. He really didn't need additional motivation, he's got all these dudes in loincloths trying to kill him. But it does end up being a nice organic ticking clocks. But also the wife only exists to be in danger to motivate the male hero, so that's full of mid-2000s ickiness.
Folks also seem to gripe about the white men landing at the end, saying it symbolizes Europe taming the New World. I didn't get that sense at all, this village is clearly peaceful and well-rounded. The white folks arriving seems to be more like, "Oh, these people thought they had problems with each other, they have no idea what's coming." There's this endless cycle of violence perpetuated against each other and you get the sense that their lack of unification, though no intrinsic fault of their own will be their downfall. And I'll give the main dude credit for just peacing out into the jungle.
What should we think about Mel Gibson as a director? He does a great job here with what looks like natural sets and lighting and the plot is largely propulsive. He also adapts a very foreign story into universal and relatable themes. It's a bit odd that he would take such an interest in this after the Passion of the Christ (2004), and maybe that's where that white savior things comes in. It'd be nice to see indigenous peoples telling their own stories, but is this a fair stop-gap? I mean, no one else is approving an all-Mayan language non-white cast any time. Maybe Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022).
I enjoyed quite a bit of this, there are definitely some problems but the action is natural and fits against anything else of its day. It was overlooked during its time but there's some good merit here. The cultural disconnect is difficult but it genuinely sucks you in. There are problematic elements but I think most of them end up checking out. Most is assuredly not all. It's worth watching and actually has a timelessness that holds up well.