If “Apocalypto” were a meal, it would be a very red, very rare, incredibly tough steak. No garnishings. This isn’t something for the faint of digestion, not to mention the heart; it pummels and kicks the senses awake to thrust them not into higher gear necessarily but another dimension altogether. “Apocalypto” defies genre and description and, like that steak, recovery from the experience can take a long, long time. Director Mel Gibson says in the production notes that he wanted to appeal to the audiences’ instincts instead of their brains, but after half an hour you begin to wonder if your instincts are up to the challenge.

There’s a theory that the game of soccer started in Mexico some 3,000 years ago; back then there was no field and the players would engage in a kind of endless marathon involving a ball and keep running for days until death or victory, whichever came first. “Apocalypto” makes you think this was indeed the case; almost from beginning to end the movie is about running, killing and dying in Mexico. There are no intervals or let-ups and there’s so much panting/screaming/blood-letting you begin to fear for your own health. Surely the human retina (or vicariously, the lungs) was never meant to take so much carnage and hyperventilation, at least not for entertainment purposes.

Interestingly, the movie was completed on the heels of Gibson’s hugely publicized remark about Jews being the cause for “all the wars in the world.” He later stated in an apologetic press conference that he really didn’t know what he “could have been thinking” — well, the exact same thing can be said for “Apocalypto.” Always a prominent if prickly presence in the Hollywood community, perhaps Gibson was thinking about redemption, vindication, an outlet for some serious sado-masochistic issues or all of the above and more — this movie is that bizarre. Brilliantly, shockingly bizarre with the kind of mesmerizing appeal mere horror-story gore could never achieve.

Director Mel Gibson
Run Time 138 minutes
Language Mayan
Opens Opening June 16, 2007

The opening scenes are the most peaceful and humane and are over with in minutes. Set in the early 16th century, on the eve of collapse of the Mayan civilization and arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, these show a boar hunt (the animal is impaled on several spearheads) and some rowdy testosterone-fueled conversation about male virility. The boar flesh is torn into and distributed among the hunters and they merrily make their way back to their village when a group of maimed refugees cross their path. The hunters pay no heed but Jaguar Paw (the incredibly agile Rudy Youngblood) has a terrible foreboding. Sure enough, the next morning a band of superefficient warrior class Holcane come attacking, to rape, pillage and burn his village down. Able-bodied men and women are tied to a bamboo pole and forced to make a long march to the capital city; others are killed off with precision. Surprisingly, children are spared and there’s a sickeningly painful scene where a low-teen girl calls out to her mother not to worry, that she will take care of the remaining kids.

Having reached the city, the women are auctioned off at the slave market and the men are painted in blue all over their naked bodies and taken to the top of a pyramid-like structure. This is where the rulers and their cackling concubines sit around to watch the spectacle, which consists of the head priest tearing out the hearts of the victims, holding them up for the cheering crowd below, and decapitating the still-writhing bodies. The torsos and heads are then kicked down the side of the pyramid wall where they make horrible, protracted rolling sounds. Due to a timely solar eclipse, Jaguar Paw escapes this fate, only to be hunted relentlessly in the jungle by Holcane supremo Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) and his A-class thugs. Wounded and dehydrated, Jaguar Paw’s only chance for survival is to keep sprinting, nonstop. In the process he jumps off a raging waterfall, dives through quicksand, wrestles with a jaguar — and keeps running.

Gibson has been accused of shamelessly fabricating Mayan history (which made major contributions to astronomy, agriculture and mathematics) and going overboard with the sheer political incorrectness of it all. Neither factor has any place in “Apocalypto” — you’re tempted to surmise that all Gibson wanted was to be as basely violent as possible, and if he had to dip several centuries back into a foreign, ancient civilization to do so then by golly he was going to do it, and to hell with the consequences. As Jaguar Paw’s father tells him in a sprint-induced hallucination: “Never, ever look back.”

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