"Apocalypto" - Story and Review
How can I say this ... I have seen an energetic and high-paced action movie, which has not bored me for one minute. This chase movie presents a hero who against all odds achieves what he hopes for, to start a new beginning with his family. During the course of the chase he decimates his enemies in a fashion becoming any action hero in movies like "Rambo" or "Predator". But the setting is different. In the case of "Apocalypto" director Mel Gibson sets the chase and the action within a framework he calls Maya civilization. And it is here that something goes wrong. Is this Maya civilization that I saw represented? No. I saw the vision of someone who thought this was Maya civilization, but what he presents is some exotic society far removed from what I would consider Maya civilization. Thus where does it all go wrong? First the story (in extenso, contains spoilers and graphic detail):
Jaguar Paw, his father Flint Sky, and a group of fellow-hunters are set to catch a tapir in the thick jungle forest. With an ingenious contraption they catch the tapir and set out to distribute the meat among the hunters (here the movie has an excellent comic relief moment, which I will not give away). At one moment Jaguar Paw hears a soft rush in the jungle and he calls out if somebody is out there. And indeed there is. People emerge, refugees. After exchanging meat and fish a large group of refugees becomes visible, the apparent leader of which tells that their lands have been burned and ravaged. He also whispers something of a place where the houses are made of stone ... something clearly unknown to Jaguar Paw, his father, and his fellow hunters. The refugees continue their journey, after permission given by Flint Sky, carrying only the bare essentials, in search of a new beginning. Jaguar Paw and the group of hunters return to the village, where they meet up with their wifes, children, and other family members (again comic relief moments here).
Later that evening the village elder tells an impressive story on how man can not achieve his ultimate goal, not even with the help and genius of the animals, after which the villagers burst into a spontaneous dance peagant. Jaguar Paw joins his wife Seven, who is carrying his second child, and his little boy Turtles Run to relax and contemplate the elder's story.
During the night Jaguar Paw has a disturbing and prophetic dream. As the dog continues to bark in his dream, he wakes up at dawn to the bark of a dog in the distance. As his wife asks "to kill the dog" the dog indeed stops to bark and silence returns, ... as well as moving bodies in the village, carrying weapons and torches.
A line of warriors has formed just outside the village and all turn to the man at the center, Zero Wolf, who with a simple hand gesture sends the warriors attacking the village at dawn. The village of hunter-gatherers stands no change, although they put up a brave fight. Jaguar Paw is able to bring his pregnant wife and child into safety, lowering them into a dried-up water well. The men and women are captured and it is in front of his eyes that Jaguar Paw sees how is father Flint Sky is killed by Middle Eye, the son of Zero Wolf. Just before captives and captors leave the village the rope that would have provided an escape from the water well for Seven and her son is severed by a suspicious warrior.
The captives are brought through the thick forest, where they join another group of warriors. That group of warriors has caught some of the refugees Jaguar Paw and his fellow hunters had met the other day. The captives suffer a long journey through the jungle, over mountains paths, and through a river to finally enter into a natural environment that has suffered from severe drought and shows failing maize crops. They also pass a huge lime stone quarry and in a field of which the soil is exhausted just outside their destiny, a little girl who suffers from smallpox proclaims a prophecy of things to come as she is pushed away by the warriors.
The captives then enter the outskirts of something they have never seen before, a city. The captives walk along the road and they (and the viewer) are treated to a strange city frenzy in which weavers, butchers, and a decadent elite feature.
The women and men are separated; while the men are painted blue, the women are sold on a slave market, in which cacao beans seem to serve as currency. The male captives pass through a corridor in which they are treated to an extensive painted mural.
The mural depicts what will happen to them, although they are still (seemingly) oblivious to that fact: they will be sacrificed. Jaguar Paw and his fellow captives are brought to the main plaza where they are welcomed by frantic dancers and a frantic mass of people. While being transported to a central pyramid the captives are treated to the view of stacked skulls on stakes, the frantic crowd, and a distant, elevated elite that observes it all.
On the side of a stepped pyramid Jaguar Paw and the captives are led to the top, while the principal priest takes out the heart of another captive, after which it is shown to the public and burned. The body is decapitated after which the severed head and the body are thrown down the blood-drenched main stairway of the pyramid. The heads are caught by yet another ingenious contraption, while the bodies are stacked next to the pyramid. On the top of the pyramid Zero Wolf brings a small blood sacrifice and offers his captives, Jaguar Paw included, to the priest who sacrifices his victims to a sun god named K'uk'ulkan. In the background the viewer is treated to a glimpse of the royal Maya family that rules this city. The king and queen are elaborately dressed and well-fed, especially their chubby son, in contrast to their subjects on the main plaza.
The priest continues his grim task as the first victim of the new group of captives is chosen to be sacrificed. Bent backwards over a columnar sacrificial stone the chest of the victim is penetrated by a stone knife and his heart is removed by the priest (not actually shown). The heart is placed upon a fire, the smoke of which goes up into the sky. The victim's body is beheaded and the severed head and decapitated body are thrown down the stairs. Now it is Jaguar Paw's turn. Masked helpers bent him over the sacrificial stone. The priest raises his arms while his hands hold the sacrificial knife.
It is at this moment that the moon slowly passes in front of the sun and covers the light to climax with a full solar eclipse (actually an occultation). While the king looks at the priest and the mass down below is striken by awe, the principal priest starts to laugh as he knows what will be happening. Slowly the moon passes and the sun becomes visible again, the eclipse has passed. The priest then proclaims that the sun god K'uk'ulkan is satisfied and Jaguar Paw is taken away from the sacrifial stone. Zero Wolf, himself surprised, asks what he must do with his captives. The priest tells him to dispose of these remaining captives. The warriors descend the pyramid and bring the captives to some kind of alley at the outskirts of the city. Zero Wolf informs them, that if they reach the end of the alley, they are free to go. Middle Eye is positioned at the end of the alley and the captives are released in pairs. The captives run for their lifes, while the warriors shoot arrows and use javelins. The first two captives do not make it and are slain. The second pair includes Jaguar Paw. Close to the end of the alley he is hit by an arrow, that penetrates his body. As Middle Eye wants to finish him off, Jaguar Paw pushes the point of the arrow, which he has broken off, into the throught of Middle Eye (not shown). Zero Wolf comes running to his dying son, as Jaguar Paw escapes into the dried-up corn fields into which the alley opens up. Middle Eye dies in the arms of his father Zero Wolf, who with his group of warriors sets out hunt down and catch Jaguar Paw. Jaguar Paw crosses the dried-up corn field to stumble into a giant pit into which the decapitated bodies of hundreds and hundreds (thousands and thousands) of sacrificial victims have been dumped. He is able to cross the "killing fields" and escapes into the jungle forest.
Still painted blue, Jaguar Paw hides in the tree tops, while Zero Wolf and the warriors pass him on ground level. A drop of blood which has fallen from his wound onto the body of one of the warriors brings the group back to chase Jaguar Paw. However, Jaguar Paw has met a black jaguar in the tree top that protected its infant. As he is chased by the black jaguar the warriors find him again and continue their chase. One of the warriors is taken out by the jaguar (which is killed) and Jaguar Paw emerges, still hurt, from the forest at a huge waterfall. He jumps the waterfall into safety, and, as Zero Wolf and his warriors gaze down on him, Jaguar Paw proclaims that they are in his territory now. Arrows fly by him, and Zero Wolf and the warriors jump the waterfall as well. Jaguar Paw continues his escape into the forest, sinks into quick sand, and emerges fully black.
He crouches like a black jaguar (fullfilling the little girl's prophecy not revealed above) through the jungle forest and sets off to eliminate Zero Wolf and his warriors. The warriors fall victim to the secrets of the jungle or are taken out by the superior survivor and hunting skills of Jaguar Paw.
Jaguar Paw eventually kills Zero Wolf by using the same ingenious contraption with which he and his fellow hunters killed the tapir. In the mean time it has started to rain and the water well, where his wife Seven and his son Turtles Run are hiding, is starting to fill up. The final two warriors chase Jaguar Paw out of the forest onto a beach. Breathing heavily from the chase, he sinks to his knees, and his gaze finds the sea. The two warriors find him at the beach, but also they come to gaze at the sea. The three of them see four large ships anchored just off the coast, while Spanish conquerors and a catholic priest banishing the cross are moving to the shore in three rowing boats. While the two warriors are fascinated by these events and slowly walk forwards conversing among themselves, they forget their prey and former captive. Jaguar Paw escapes back into jungle forest, finds his village, and rescues his wife, first son, and new-born second son from the water well. They leave the village and from the forest they look upon the Spanish ships anchored off the beach. While Seven suggests to go to these people, Jaguar Paw tells his wife to come, so they can go and seek a new beginning.
So far the story. So what is wrong with the picture that Gibson has "painted". A lot, and the following is just a selection. The Maya had an agricultural society in which corn was central. Hunter-gatherers as depicted in the movie did not exist (anymore). Many of the hunters wear jade jewelry, but jade jewelry was only worn by the elite. The hunters have not heard before of a place where houses are made of stone. During the height of the Classic period any Maya would probably have lived within a radius of 20-25 km. from a city in which houses and temples were built of stone. At that time the jungle as depicted in the movie would not have existed, as Late Classic Maya society suffered from over-exploitation of natural resources, over-population, natural disasters (i.e. drought), warfare, etc. (the famous "Maya collapse" was not a single cause event, but a multi-causal process that took circa 100 to 150 years). This is what the movie depicts (especially visible when the captives are led into the "civilized" world i.e. the city, with barren land everywhere, failed harvests, and continuous lime production to extend the city). But how did society remedy it according to the movie makers? A well-fed (look at that obese little boy!), rich, and distant elite and royal family has put its fate in priests that treat the population and us, the viewers, to a bloodfest in which a near infinite amount of human sacrifices figures prominently (in all honesty, the supreme moments are never shown, except for the beating heart). This society is rotten to core. But this is not Maya society. Human sacrifice at this scale did not exist, people were not taken captive for the sole purpose of being sacrificed. Kings themselves were the principal priests, they performed the ceremonies. The city itself seems to be some empty center, surrounded by jungle forest, where the regular population does not live, only seems to work and congregates for mass public affairs. The architecture is a combination of several regional architectural styles, even incorporating non-Maya architecture. Many other things that are wrong with the movie are due to chronological error. For instance, the murals that Jaguar Paw and the captives pass are based on Late Preclassic murals found at San Bartolo (ca. 100 B.C.- A.D.100), which by Late Classic times would not have been visible (ca. A.D. 700-900). But actually we are in the Late Postclassic (A.D. 1250-1525) as ... the Spanish arrive (early 16th century)!
The society that is presented in "Apocalypto" is a society that is rotten to the core, which has destroyed itself from within, and which is ready to be conquered from without. Well, that explains the opening quote ("A great civilization is not conquered from without, until it has destroyed itself from within", Will Durant). But, again, this is not Maya society. The society as portrayed in the movie is an unfounded stereotype and actually a caricature. And that makes the movie racist, specifically as director Gibson has claimed in interviews (e.g. interviews at ComingSoon.net, DarkHorizons.com) that it does represent authentic Maya society at some point in time through "a reasonable reconstruction of what might have been". The Spanish were no saviors, as the movie wants us to believe; their arrival and subsequent conquest and colonization of the Americas led to large scale genocide and to the subsequent marginalization of all the indigenous people up to the present day.
In the end "Apocalypto" is a chase movie, and if you like chase movies with an instantly likeable hero, this is the movie for you. This movie has the action and the energy from beginning to end. However, if you think the civilizational backdrop of the chase is authentic, that you will learn something about Maya civilization, that it represents the archaeologically reconstructed past of the Maya of the present day, the answer is a definitive no. So take it as it is: as a movie, not as a history lesson.
Mel Gibson interviews on "Apocalypto" (selection)
"Apocalypto" Reviews (selection)
(all pictures within the above story summary are captured from the trailer)