The last film Mel Gibson directed was set in an alienatingly ancient society, performed in a fossilised language and sodden with sacrificial blood, and he seems to reckon the formula ain’t broke. Like ‘The Passion of the Christ’, and its predecessor, ‘Braveheart’, ‘Apocalypto’ is a period piece on a self-consciously epic scale, in which the social wrenches of historical transition – essentially the suppression of an idyllic (rural) community by an all-powerful but decadent (city) empire – are translated into physical trauma, visited with near-rapturous detail on the body. ‘Apocalypto’ may or may not be a credible vision of Mesoamerican life 500 years ago – and plenty of academics and indigenous Americans say not – but it’s undoubtedly another Mel Gibson film about people being tortured to death.
The film’s opening shots – forest floor, foliage, the noise of birds and insects – call to mind ‘The New World’, Terrence Malick’s sublime, calm tragedy about similar subject matter. Then a tapir bursts through the brush, is speared by spring-mounted spikes and has its organs dished out one by one. Gibson’s is the world of the hunt and the kill, and he is exceptionally proficient at their depiction. Using Panavision’s new digital Genesis system, photographer Dean Semler brings tremendous momentum and adrenaline to the jungle chases that make up a large part of the action and, on its own terms, the film’s Maya City is an extraordinary feat of imaginative will, giving a convincing impression of lived-in and troubled complexity.
This is by no means a boring film, then, but it is a grotesque one, and that brings it pretty close to camp. A spirit of sadism informs the endemic violence: there’s no shortage of characters who delight in pain (including fat children and deformed dwarves of a type familiar from ‘The Passion…’), but even healthcare consists of lacerations and biting ants. And yes, nature is cruel, but do we really need to see a jaguar eating a man’s face off? Gibson claims contemporary parallels for his story – from deforestation to the sacrifice of the weak by the powerful – but a pay-off that teeters between reactionary and downright absurd leaves this ultimately feeling like a succession of gorified Boy’s Own scrapes.