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Braveheart meets Die Hard in the forest ... only with Mayans killing Mayans ... and lots more gore. That's what happens when Mel Gibson turns a bloodthirsty camera lens on the end of the Mayan civilization some 500 years ago. As a desperate, brutal culture seeks to stave off starvation and destruction, that lens also pays close attention to one man who is quite literally racing to save the only thing he has left: his family.
Jaguar Paw is a member of a remote Mayan village deep in the jungles of southern Mexico. He and his tribe enjoy a simple but rich life together. Days of hunting forest animals are followed by evenings of communal connection around the fire with loved ones as village elders dispense tribal lore. For Jaguar Paw, nothing matters more than his relationships with his pregnant young wife, Seven, and their son, Turtles Run, as well as his father, Flint Sky.
But that idyllic life is shattered the day Jaguar Paw's village is invaded by a Holcane war party from a distant-but-powerful Mayan city. Warriors under the command of the vicious Zero Wolf slaughter most of the villagers but take some men and a few women captive. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his wife and child in a dried up well, but he's captured before he can come back for them.
A forced march ends with Jaguar Paw and his fellow prisoners in the heart of a dying Mayan civilization. Myriad slaves labor to erect massive pyramids in a city surrounded by barren, deforested land. But slavery is not the fate for which Jaguar Paw and his friends are destined. As Zero Wolf leads the prisoners through screaming throngs and up the largest pyramid's scaffold, the horrifying truth dawns on them: They are to be sacrificed to the Mayan gods by desperate priests begging for an end to a life-sapping drought.
Then, as if he's suddenly become a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court, Jaguar Paw is saved ... by a solar eclipse. And when he later kills an attacker during a cruel execution game, he escapes into the jungle. Zero Wolf and his raiding party angrily pursue as Jaguar Paw plunges into the undergrowth toward home—hoping against hope that his beloved Seven and Turtles Run are still alive.
Jaguar Paw is devoted to his fellow villagers and his family. And he risks his life for both. He loves and learns from his father, and he's determined to protect his wife and son from the marauding Holcane warriors. Likewise, Flint Sky admonishes his son not to give into fear. Even when a wicked warrior named Snake Ink puts a blade to Flint Sky's throat merely to torment Jaguar Paw, the older man does not flinch.
Several other heartrending scenes also demonstrate the villagers' deep love for one another as they mourn the deaths and kidnappings of their family members. One highlights the bravery of a young girl who takes charge of a group of even younger children after their parents are hauled away.
During the forced march, Jaguar Paw does everything he can to help another captured (and badly wounded) villager keep moving. When it looks as if Jaguar Paw will be sacrificed, he does not give in to fear as some of those around him have done. He's still convinced he'll be able to save his family, despite the grim odds.
Mayans offer prayers to various gods. Most of the time, these gods seem to be angry or vengeful. One of the few exceptions is a prayer by a mother who asks a goddess to protect her abandoned children.
In the city, an elaborate Mayan religious system includes the belief that the gods can be appeased by human sacrifice, which (judging by the massive number of corpses we're shown) happens about every minute. Portrayed as decadent, oppressive and gluttonous, these people laugh and take pleasure in their ritual sacrifices.
Several enemy warriors believe that the eclipse and events surrounding Jaguar Paw's escape are a part of the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. After these men kill a real jaguar in the forest, they ask for forgiveness of the gods for slaying a sacred animal. And they recall that the event was prophesied by a little girl.
After a group hunt, Jaguar Paw and several other men give a childless husband (named Blunted) the testicles of a tapir to eat. They trick him into believing this will improve his virility. Later, Flint Sky also plays a joke on Blunted, telling him that rubbing a particular weed on his genitals before sex will enable him to impregnate his wife. What it does, in fact, is burn his skin. Thus, he's shown running out of his hut naked, holding himself and screaming. His barely clothed wife bolts out, too, and pours water on her mouth, implying that they'd been having oral sex.
After the Holcane raid, several warriors shove a topless woman back and forth between them; it seems clear that their behavior is prelude to a group rape.
The camera often glimpses women's breasts in non-sexual scenes. It rarely lingers on their bodies, but the beads most of them wear do very little concealing work. Likewise, virtually all of the male characters' backsides are visible as they wear loincloths that don't cover all that much in the front, either.
The opening scene—in which a hunting party drives a tapir into a lethal multi-spiked trap—immediately informs us Mel Gibson isn't going to pull any punches when it comes to the violence in Apocalypto.
The arrival of the Holcanes then confirms it by marking the beginning of an onslaught of human-on-human violence. Men, women and children are clubbed, pummeled and speared to death. A warrior rips an infant away from its mother. In slow-motion, we watch every detail of a man's throat being slit. The notes I took during these early scenes are littered with words such as "sliced," "beaten," "dragged," "clubbed," "hit," etc. Invaders burn the villagers' huts as well, adding to their misery.
But all of that is still just a prelude. Mr. Gibson really amps up the shock value in the film's horrific human sacrifice scenes. As the men are waiting their "turn," we watch the decapitated heads of victims bounce down the temple's stairs. Dozens of heads can be seen impaled on spikes surrounding the temple, as well as piled in basins at the bottom of the stairs. Several times we watch the high priest's knife fall and then see him hold aloft the still-beating hearts of his victims. (Gibson thankfully doesn't show us the organs' actual removal, arguably the only place he exercises any restraint in this movie's violence.)
Jaguar Paw's escape marks the beginning of the third act of major violence. Among other gruesome moments, he finds himself in a massive pit full of rotting, decapitated corpses. Several of his compatriots are executed in a cruel game that invites them to try to run for the forest as assailants hurl spears, rocks and arrows at them. Several are mowed down. One is nastily smashed in the head with a large rock; another is hit by a spear that impales him through the back of the head and emerges from his mouth.
Jaguar Paw himself is speared and shot with an arrow. (He removes the first, breaks off the second and in true Rambo-like style soldiers on.) Jaguar Paw and Zero Wolf's men then proceed to alternately hunt one another. Most meet grisly ends. One runs into the same impaling trap that did in the tapir. Another is horribly mauled by an actual jaguar that latches onto his face and won't let go. Still another slits his own wrist so as to die quicker after being bitten by a snake.
The MacGyver-like Jaguar Paw improvises clever ways to dispatch his pursuers, such as pushing thorns into a poison frog and using a leaf as a makeshift blowgun. Another unfortunate foe gets a knife to the throat and is covered in blood. Likewise, a fountain of blood erupts from yet another man's head wound.
And on and on it goes.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters speak in the Yukatek Mayan language, but that didn't prevent Gibson and fellow scriptwriter Farhad Safinia from including the f-word, "d--n" and "b--tard" in the subtitles.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Some critics have hailed this violent tale as one of Mel Gibson's best cinematic works thus far. Somehow they've been able to separate the film's constant and grisly violence from its engaging story of one man's determination to rescue his family.
Others, however, haven't been able to get past its buckets of blood. Fox News reviewer Marty Friedman is representative of many when he calls the film a "two-hour-plus torture-fest." He continues, "Apocalypto is the most violent movie Disney has ever released, with so much blood spurting out of orifices that even Martin Scorsese would blush. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to see heads and hearts removed without anesthesia, then this is the movie for you. ... Apocalypto surpasses The Passion in every way as a movie about pain, flagellation and wounding. The grotesqueries are numbing, and at some point they become laughable. But all the while, you're thinking, What's the point here? ... You start to think Apocalypto exists just to show violence for itself."
For his part, Mel Gibson doesn't seem particularly concerned. He told Entertainment Weekly, "The world is a violent place. Violence is a recurring part of our history. But this movie is not as violent as a chain-saw movie, not by a long shot. ... This is less violent than Braveheart, I think. The sacrifices at the temple are puny in comparison to what they did to the guy on the rack in that movie. But I want people to close their eyes sometimes. There is one point where a guy jumps over a waterfall and brains himself on a rock. I don't want people to watch that piece. I've given them plenty of time to close their eyes, because that's really heinous." When asked if the film was close to receiving an NC-17 rating for violence, Gibson said simply, "Not at all. They said, 'Boy, this is violent, we're giving it an R.' And I said, 'Fine.' That's what it is—it's an R-rated film. For good reason."
Though Marty Friedman believes the graphic violence in the film overwhelms any point its director hoped to make, I wonder if Gibson perhaps did have a couple things in mind. He's deliberately portrayed a brutal, selfish civilization that destroys both its natural resources and its own people in a vain attempt to appease the gods—and to sustain its own glory. In these politically charged days, it's hard not to see an indictment of our own country's self-indulgent, violent and (some would argue) war-loving culture in his villainous Mayans.
And if Gibson didn't have anything more on his mind than creating a good "chase" movie, as he puts it, Robert Hansen certainly did. Newsweek reports that Hansen, an Idaho State University anthropologist who worked with Gibson for two years to bring a sense of authenticity to the project, says he hopes his vision of creating a contemporary allegory on the squandering of natural resources and the abuse of power will be recognized by moviegoers.
Yes. We get it. Don't rape the earth. Don't pillage, enslave or destroy its people. But do we really need to absorb such a blood-drenched spectacle in order to fully understand? Hansen thinks so. "The movie is designed for people who don't have the intellect to grasp the deeper concepts," he said. Ouch. So pile on the unspeakable brutality and gratuitous gore, I guess, because that's the only way anybody will ever learn.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw; Dalia Hernandez as Seven; Jonathan Brewer as Blunted; Morris Birdyellowhead as Flint Sky; Carlos Emilio Baez as Turtles Run; Raoul Trujillo as Zero Wolf; Rodolfo Palacios as Snake Ink