Upon hearing that Mel Gibson was filming a story set at the end of the Mayan empire and performed in an ancient foreign tongue translated into subtitles, one might well have wondered what possessed Gibson to undertake such an odd task. Indeed, many people wondered exactly that.
Well, now we know, as Apocalypto premiered today in theaters across the United States. The film tells the story of a young father, Jaguar Paw, from a small tribe who is taken prisoner after a Mayan attack force destroys his village and takes the adult survivors back to the city to be sold into slavery or sacrificed to some alien "god." After a miraculous deliverance from the sacrificial blood altar, he escapes, pursued into the jungle by a Mayan SWAT team. At this point Gibson begins a remake of Cornel Wilde’s 1966 film The Naked Prey, and the action sequences are as good as in most such films.
What is interesting about the film is how neatly it fits into Gibson’s career and the themes of his previous films. At the center of Apocalypto is a man on the run trying to protect his family from an oppressive, violent, decadent regime, as is the central story of Braveheart, The Patriot, Signs, and others, or a surrogate family as in The Road Warrior, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, We Were Soldiers, etc. And of course the theme of self-sacrifice for the good of others is the central idea of The Passion of the Christ.
In the case of Apocalypto, Gibson’s choice of a story set in a distant time and place and spoken in an unfamiliar language strips away contemporary concerns and points us toward the central question of what exactly it is that causes people to do such violence to one another and exploit each other so routinely.
The film positively bursts with ideas. Gibson begins the film with a quote from the philosopher Will Durant: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." Gibson suggests that the Mayan civilization fell not because the Spanish we so powerful but because the civilization was itself so weak and decadent, a condition he makes clear in the scenes in the Mayan city. He also makes sure to draw out similarities between the Mayan civilization and contemporary Western society.
But he does not appear to do so simply in order to suggest that our society is decadent and that the real danger to us is not from Islam but from left-wing atheists (although he undoubtedly believes that to be true). No, the point is to bring out the universality of this human impulse to exploit and destroy. As an elder of the small tribe states in a campfire story early in the film, there is a hole in Man that causes him to take all that he can until the earth can give no more.
Gibson would call this hole Original Sin, and he clearly sees it as universal among human beings. But there is an antidote, he makes evident, and it too is universal, at least in availability. That is love. For it is Jaguar Paw’s love for his wife and child that motivates him to escape and return to his village, in hope of rescuing them from a pit in which they were hiding from the invaders and are trapped.
Hence we see the familiar Gibson themes of self-sacrifice and the fight of the individual against a corrupt society. On the political level, the classical liberal idea of the home, family, community, and religion as superior to the state is as important in Apocalypto as in Gibson’s other politically oriented films. The notion that social decadence and widespread self-indulgence lead to political oppression is another familiar Gibson theme evident in the film.
Expressing the film’s religious foundation, Gibson provides images symbolizing baptism (two prominent ones) and a scene representing a symbolic death, burial, and resurrection. Religion is at the center of this film, and that religion is Christianity, despite the setting in a pagan civilization.
It’s impressive indeed to see what is basically a silent film present so many interesting ideas. Gibson is most certainly a hghly talented and inventive film writer and director, and Apocalypto is a stirring example of what intelligent cinema can achieve.