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Jaguar Paw is a young Mayan hunter, helping to provide for his pregnant wife, son and their village by hunting in the jungle with his tribe. Their simple idyllic life is thrown into turmoil when their village is invaded and the men are taken through the jungle to the city to be sacrificed. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his wife and child in a chasm and, after managing to escape from the city, he has to make it back to his family before his captors catch up to him and get medieval on his ass.

Apocalypto
Just a few films into his directorial career, one thing is clear: Mel Gibson loves a bit of public torture. William Wallace was ripped to pieces in front of a crowd in Braveheart, Jesus had a hard time all the way through The Passion of the Christ and now we get Mayans chopped up and thrown off the top of a pyramid. According to Mad Max the historian, the past was brutal and he doesn’t think twice about showing us his version of events, whether it’s beheadings, clubbings or a warrior getting his face mauled by a jaguar. We’re not talking the same level of gore as The Passion of the Christ, but Apocalypto is not for the faint hearted.

Apocalypto operates under the pretence that it’s a historical document showing the downfall of the Mayan society. As we follow Jaguar Paw’s journey from the jungle to the heart of the city we can see the slavery and disease that has tipped civilisation past the point of no return. The city-dwelling Mayan leaders are shown as savages, eager to appease their God and maintain the loyalty of their followers with ritual sacrifice. Is this approach racist? Maybe, but certainly not to the same degree as the complaints that were levelled against The Passion. Other than what we see in the background during Jaguar Paw’s journey to the city and back, the actions of the characters serve only to move the story along because beneath the historical epic exterior, Apocalypto is an exciting chase movie that sticks closely to conventions of the action genre.

Apocalypto
The story is a simple there-and-back-again chase but the execution is excellent. The idea of a man running for his life is something that anyone can identify with and the handheld camera work means the visuals move as fast as the story. Even though Apocalypto uses unknown actors speaking Mayan dialogue, the film is very easy to get into, more so than Mel Gibson’s last film. Not bound by the scriptures, he can take more time to establish the characters and develop our emotional investment in Jaguar Paw and his family.

There are a couple of minor problems though. Whether the screenwriter had a tight deadline to meet or the filmmakers thought they could somehow throw some lines in to appeal to modern audiences, there are a small number of lines in the screenplay that took me out of the film. Lines like ‘He’s f____d’ and ‘I’m walking here!’ are pure twenty-first century dialogue and could easily have been replaced with a historical alternative. My second complaint is the ending. Taking more than a little inspiration from Predator and other jungle-bound action movies, the event that prompts the resolution comes straight out of Lord of the Flies. The lack of originality is not what irks me though. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that what happens is at odds with the quote at the beginning of the film describing the way a civilisation will destroy itself.

Apocalypto
Those complaints aside, there’s a lot to recommend here. Apocalypto is a visceral, non-stop action movie that will keep you gripped from beginning to end. On the other hand, you might want to consult other sources if you want a concise history of the Mayan civilisation. The good significantly outweighs the bad though and if Apocalypto doesn’t excite you, your heart has probably stopped beating.

Video


Apocalypto is presented with a colourful 1.85:1 anamorphic picture. There are very small black bands at the top and bottom of the picture, but I had been hoping for a wider frame given the epic scope of the film. As you will find out in the extra features, the Mexican jungle was picked as the filming location because the foliage isn’t too dense and allows the camera to look deep into the jungle. The picture represents this well, with good detail in the backgrounds.

Apocalypto

Audio


There are three audio tracks available: stereo, Dolby 5.1 surround and DTS 5.1. For this review I selected the DTS track and I wasn’t disappointed. Ambient noises sound great coming through the rear speakers and give you a jungle atmosphere in the comfort of your front room. The music and dialogue are pitched at the right level but occasional sound effects are louder, especially the jaguar’s roar, which works well and adds to the excitement of those scenes.

Apocalypto

Extras


Mel Gibson and co-producer Farhad Safinia provide a commentary track. Maybe Mel isn’t used to doing commentary tracks or maybe he recorded it late at night while his kids were sleeping but he’s very softly spoken. Their conversations focus heavily on location scouting, casting and the massive amount of work that had to go into the costumes and makeup, especially the city scenes where seven hundred extras were used.

‘Becoming Mayan: Creating Apocalypto’ is a decent making-of featurette showing plenty of on-set footage and interviews with the crew. Be warned if you listen to the commentary track first—the subject matter overlaps quite a lot. A deleted scene is provided with optional commentary but it’s very short. It’s highly unlikely this is the only deleted scene so I have to wonder why they bothered.

Apocalypto

Overall


Apocalypto works very well as an action movie, more so than as a historical document. The transfer looks and sounds great but the package is let down by the slight set of extras. This is a must-see movie but I’m expecting a features-loaded special edition to arrive sooner or later.


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