Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The P.T. Barnum Of Our Age Returns W/Apocalypto, An R-Rated Romp Killing People Of Color!

The Good: Decent acting, Good pacing
The Bad: Characters are all "types," MPAA blew it on rating, Gore, Plot
The Basics: Despite the great cinematography, Apocalypto is just another gory chase film that dehumanizes people of color . . . and the viewer.

Every now and then, I watch a movie and it makes me think of films in general. Some films are so big that they capture my imagination for how spectacularly they contradict all that I know or feel about films. Usually, this comes in the form of me railing against the MPAA. I'm not a big fan of the MPAA and I found myself truly loving certain aspects of the documentary film This Film Is Not Yet Rated (reviewed here!). But every now and then, I wonder just what goes on in the mind of those people who rate films for the MPAA. At one point, the most striking example I had of the organization getting a film wrong based on its thematic content was the film A.I. (reviewed here!). Now, my best example is Apocalypto.

If Apocalypto featured white people doing the exact same things, there is no way the MPAA would have rated this film only "R." But, I get ahead of myself.

Jaguar Paw, a warrior on the rural outskirts of the Mayan Empire is captured by the urban Mayans in a brutal raid. Amid the carnage, Jaguar Paw is able to hide his wife and child in a deep hole shortly before he is dragged away. Thus, his wife seven escapes being raped and/or murdered by the savage Mayans and Jaguar Paw finds himself captured, but knowing his seed might well survive. Jaguar Paw is taken to the Mayan capital where he - along with the others in his tribe - are painted, assaulted and brought to the temple to be sacrificed to the gods.

When an eclipse is interpreted as the gods being satisfied, Jaguar Paw and his peers are set up to be slaughtered. Fearing it might rain and drown his very pregnant wife in the hole, Jaguar Paw decides to make a run for it and what ensues is a chase through the jungle with life and death being the only real options.

Apocalypto is brought to us by the P.T. Barnum of our age, Mel Gibson, who managed to convince busloads of senior citizens that The Passion Of The Christ was something more than a simple gore flick. He gets credit with me for that; it takes quite a guy to milk people who wouldn't go see Texas Chainsaw Massacre if their life depended on it with a film with about the same level of on-screen gore and lack of story. But with Apocalypto, Gibson creates a film that is as brutal to a society as The Passion Of The Christ was to an individual. And the main problem is, Apocalypto, as entertainment, recasts the United States as the modern Rome, the viewer is the decadent Mayan.

Allow me to explain. In ancient Rome, when it became decadent and top-heavy with corruption, the primary form of public entertainment was throwing Christians in with the lions and watching with excitement as they were eviscerated. In the Mayan culture, as depicted here in Apocalypto, the form of public entertainment was watching people be beheaded as sacrifices to the gods. And while American viewers cannot catch the head as it tumbles down the stairs on the movie screen, to be entertained by this puts the viewer in the same mindset as the decadent Mayans. Finding Apocalypto and its ilk entertaining makes us as decadent and corrupted and dehumanized; it is our society that is on the verge of collapse, just as the Mayans on the screen are.

And in that regard, Apocalypto succeeds. The cinematography is beautiful, the colors are vibrant and the film looks good. Mel Gibson actually goes out of his way to make the film look good and he honestly keeps the pace moving such that even when the film degenerates into a simple chase film, it does not feel as lame as it has the potential to be. Instead, the film moves and there is a tension to it that feels quite real, despite the prophecy that basically reveals early on that Jaguar Paw is something of a harbinger for the Mayan apocalypse.

To be fair, the acting is fine. Honestly, if I wanted to fairly evaluate the acting, I would have to go back and rewatch the film. Why? Apocalypto is subtitled, so most of the time people are speaking and emoting, I was busy reading the subtitles. Fortunately for those who want a straightforward action-adventure flick, the movie stops talking after a while and simply commences with the running and killing.

However, lead actor Rudy Youngblood carries the film well. He's the ultimate Native action hero and while his character conforms to so many of those conceits, his performance works well. He can run, stab, fight, duck and look like he's getting beaten to death with the best of them. And when the time comes, he does have the ability to emote and his on-screen chemistry with actress Dalia Hernandez, who plays his wife, Seven.

But therein ends the success of Apocalypto. There are no genuine characters in Apocalypto; everyone is types. Indeed, the only truly new and different aspect to this film that one might not expect or have seen in an aboriginal slaughter film would be the sequences at the beginning which characterize the rural hunters as tricksters who play on the naivete of a hunter who is having fertility issues. Other than a few bits of dialogue regarding that, Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia present the script as a straightforward capture, pillage, hunt film.

As a result, there are a series of monolithic characters that fall into types. Because so few of the characters are named on screen, it's almost pointless that Gibson and Safinia chose to name them with unique Mayan names at all. Jaguar Paw is Generic Hero, Seven is Heroine In Distress. There's also Sage Elder, Cowardly Hunter, Sidekick Earlykilled, and, of course, Overconfident Villain. With the presence of Decadent Priest and Beheading Officiate, Overconfident Villain may well be Villain #2. Either way, the characters are just so monolithic.

And even the plot isn't much. Sure, there's a prophecy thrown in to allow the viewer some consolation. Apocalypto, after all, cannot be a simple gore flick about a guy running through the jungle with murderous savages on his heels. No, this is a man of prophecy and greatness and therefor the viewer is compelled to care about him and his fate. Care!

This leads me to my big gripe about Apocalypto and virtually everyone who has seen it has come to agree with me once they objectively consider the film. This is a violent film. Women are raped on screen in front of their husbands, characters are beheaded, there are people shot, maimed, throats slit, you name it. It's a graphically violent and gory film. I know that standards for violence and gore continue to change, but Apocalypto is heavy with it and the reason it gets away with it is because the people being slaughtered and who are running around half-naked are people of color.

Mel Gibson rightly banked on the setting excusing him all his nudity, violence and gore and it's a shame the MPAA was not smart enough to catch him duping them. Were the characters white, they would not have been able to show the nudity with children. Were the characters white, the duration and viciousness of the rape scenes would not have endured on screen. Or, the film would have had to have cut some of its other graphic violence and gore. Gibson rolled the dice figuring that because it's cast as a historical epic, utilizing a decadent culture of Them, the MPAA would turn a blind eye to the level and quality of carnage and he was right.

That does not make it right.

Apocalypto is not entertaining. It is brutal, it is overkill and the level of graphic violence and gore does not enhance the story, it simply degrades its audience. If Apocalypto were reshot, recreated shot by shot in a white suburban setting - replacing barebreasted natives with pert little cheerleaders, hunters with jocks in shorts, and the stone knives with switchblades, the film would never get an "R" rating. But we can deal with the violence and gore happening to "Them" because they're not real people. Don't believe me? Give me a grant of $40 million (the rumored shooting budget of Apocalypto) and I'll reshoot the film in a white suburban setting. Shot per shot, nothing added. It would never be released. Not with an "R" rating.

The DVD is brought to us in widescreen with a full-length commentary by Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia, wherein the two discuss the production difficulties, script ideas and seem to discount much of the violence and instead look at the technical aspects of creating the movie. As well, there are the deleted scenes - nothing substantive missing from the film without them! - which have commentary available as well. As well, there is a featurette; none of the bonus features made me like the film more.

Apocalypto is perhaps the epitome of American obsession with action, gore and violence and it is consumed by the marketplace because the majority of moviegoers are desensitized to the violence and the subjects are treated as subhuman. Don't fall into that trap and don't simply accept this film as entertainment. Enjoying it sets our culture another step closer to every other fallen empire.

For a far superior film involving South American slaughter, check out The Mission (reviewed here!).

For other Mel Gibson movies, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
What Women Want


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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