Sunday, December 10, 2006

"Apocalypto" movie review

I apologize for the delay in posting – the dissertation writing is in full swing, and my focus has necessarily been on that.

To tide us over, I will place a movie review here: I saw “Apocalypto” last night. First thing to note: this movie is not as gory or reveling in violence as some reviewers led me to believe. It’s less gory (if that’s the right word) than “The Passion of the Christ,” and scenes of violence are pretty rapidly cut away from and in a civilization without gunpowder, realistic in bloodiness. Second, notice that I did not describe this movie as Gibson’s “Apocalypto.” Certainly, Gibson is a filmmaker with a distinct vision, a penchant for all things over-the-top, and certain motifs re-appear in his movies. But I deliberately wanted to watch and review this movie on its own merits, without interference from both the positive and detracting elements of Gibson’s work.

Besides the rather lofty title and the quote at the beginning of the movie, "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within", “Apocalypto” reminded me of legends and myths about heroes and “villains” acting for basic human motivations: love of family, community, sacrifice, vengeance, survival, even deep-rooted male anxieties about sexual and physical impotence. The villains in this movie are not, to me, villains in the sense of overwhelming evil other than a clearly pathologically evil character; rather, they have their own motivations of survival and sacrifice. And rape, killing, and capture of people in other villages, including the captives being sold into slavery or sent for sacrifice, have occurred in almost every civilization. Side note: I think every reviewer who describes the scenes of cruelty depicted as “unimaginable” needs to pick up a history book and read it.

Continuing on, it reminded me of a story that could be told and passed down in an oral tradition, and it is a shot in such a way that it carries the same sense of sustained action, drive, and savage beauty as many of those old legends do. Even the third act story-line “he kept running, and running, and running…” has that feel. There are no long lingering shots of the actors’ faces where either hero or enemy has an introspective mental break to ponder the nature of the world and his own place and actions within it and whether or not he is following the straight moral path – such moments, heavily laden with 20th century psychology and development of the person as individual, are part of the reason I hated both the warrior-epic films “Troy” and “Kingdom of Heaven,” I realized after watching this movie. Such moments are simply out of time and place in these stories, and Gibson got it right to not include them.

There are moments of spectacular beauty in the filming of this: to see meso-American cities, industry, dress, and temples in a theatrical production is a real treat. The camera angles, the scenes running through the jungle, the closeness to nature of the villagers well-captured at the beginning of the movie, are stunning. And it’s no small feat to make characters come alive when the actors are unknowns speaking a completely unfamiliar language. Some scenes of survival are over-the-top, but for me these worked to viscerally connect the sense of fear, danger, and pain, to the story of the hero itself.

Now to the real point: what is this movie about? (I’m ignoring the question of whether a movie needs to be about anything.) For myself, the greatness of the movie lies in the fact that it does not tell us what it is about, and I think the answers to that question will be numerous and tell one more about the person answering the question than about the movie itself. Unlike “Syriana,” a dreadful film I watched earlier in the day that tried to be about 8 different subjects and failed spectacularly at every one, by engaging in nothing more than great visuals and great storytelling involving basic human needs and wants, Gibson allows the images we see to be collected into themes about whatever we conclude. For one of my companions, the movie was about the superiority of the communal life and closeness to nature of the villages over industry, similar to one of the themes in “The Lord of the Rings.” There’s a wonderful moment at the temple that shows corruption at the top: the priest and what I assume to be the king exchange a glance during a solar eclipse that let’s the audience know that the people below are being duped into believing that the gods have been appeased and their suffering will end – the cynicism of the authorities contrasted with the purity of belief of the villagers. For another, it was about the sacrifice of men in war: how we see their lives as expendable at the same time as we regard them as salvation. Others will see in this movie a meditation on the nature of our fallen world and its undercurrents of evil and holiness; there are scenes that could be baptism/re-birth. I’ve read one review stating the movie was a criticism of our (or Hollywood’s) fetishism of tribal culture by portraying the savagery that was endemic to it and using the palpable relief the audience feels at the first sign of the “white man” near the end (a civilization in need of spiritual saving in the form of Christianity?). I’ve also read another review stating that the point of the movie was that a civilization that becomes swallowed up in fear is a dying civilization.

This movie doesn’t tell us what it means, and yet the movie can’t help but make one think. Here, for me, lies the real genius of the movie: by placing this story of survival in a culture so unfamiliar with language and customs we don’t understand and can’t relate to, and pounding us with scenes of visceral impact, we, the audience, can’t help but fill in the blanks of what is happening, because we do understand at the basic human level much of what is going on. What that means is entirely personal, as I’m sure it is for Gibson himself.