Wow. Harry Knowles and Tim League both told me that Saturday night of Fantastic Fest would deliver a helluva surprise sneak screening. Guesses went wild, between The Prestige or The Departed, as contenders. No one ever expected that tonight, audiences at Fantastic Fest would be treated to the first public screening of Mel Gibson’s latest release, Apocalypto. The film, due for release by Disney in December, recently screened to community organizations but just wrapped up an enthusiastic reception here in Austin. The film’s screening was followed by a Q&A with director Mel Gibson, and star Rudy Youngblood.
It’s no secret that Gibson has been under the microscope this year for comments he made during an arrest in Malibu. Immediately following the arrest, rumors ran wild about the fate of this new film. The 200+ audience members at tonight’s screening seemed to shrug off any politics or scandal, in favor of simply experiencing Gibson’s latest work. That’s right, no crazy war of words to report, just a recap of a film that played very well (though still not complete), and will easily serve Braveheart fans as the proper follow-up of that Oscar-winning work. Especially for those who didn’t grab hold of his last film, The Passion of the Christ (which Harry Knowles previewed in Austin, in December 2003). In other words, scandal or no, Mel Gibson has delivered a highly entertaining and suspenseful action film. Properly positioned, it could be a big success.
The film follows a Mayan tribe in the 16th Century, as they go about their everyday lives built around hunting, mating, and surviving. The focus of the tribe is Jaguar Paw (Youngblood), a warrior with a son and pregnant wife. Times are happy at the tribe, until a warring faction invades, and lays waste to many of the inhabitants. Jaguar Paw, along with a few comrades, is taken prisoner and carted off to a Mayan city. His wife and son, though, find refuge in a cave, as they await rescue. With the disturbing invasion of the camp, Gibson returns to his thrilling action setpieces, and fight scenes. And yes, there is a lot of blood. It will be fascinating to see how much of the violence will remain, since much of what we saw tonight is very, very, very (very) graphic. This includes a human-sacrifice scene, once the prisoners make it to the city, and the blood never really lets up from there.
So, without spoiling much, the rest of the narrative stems from Jaguar Paw’s need to escape his captors and recuse his family from an uncertain future. Meanwhile, omens and natural oddities spark concern that the heavens are unhappy, and that the civilization may be in danger. And, this is where Apocalytpo breaks beyond just normal, action-adventure fare (but there is plenty of that to behold). Gibson clearly adds an accent or two of modern-day relevance to what unfolds at the end of Mayan civilization, marked by the fact that the Mayans are depleting their own resources, while greed and violence spell doom for the future.
During the Q&A, Gibson shared “I just wanna draw the parallels. I just looked at it, and thought, we display that stuff here. I don’t wanna be a doomsayer, but the Mayan calendar ends in 2012,” he said, musing with a grin, “So have fun!” It’s quite clear that certain characters in the film could be compared to various world leaders, as the Mayan city is run by self-righteous men convinced they are doing the will of the gods. There’s even a parallel to the grizzly sacrifice scene, Gibson shared Saturday night, “What’s human sacrifice if not sending a bunch of kids off to Iraq for no reason?”
When chatting about his casting choices, Gibson noted that all of the actors were first-timers from the around the globe. In finding his Jaguar Paw, the selection process was down to about six folks and he liked Youngblood, particularly because he wasn’t “too pretty,” and resembled a normal person. But, in addition, Gibson requested that each finalist run around the coference room in which he was casting. And, it was quite clear that Youngblood had the physical chops for such a demanding role. Youngblood, who was charming if not seemingly nervous at the screening, manages a great presence in the film.
Apocalypto is not perfect. It’s also not complete (in fact, some of the finished effects will greatly improve some of the Mayan city scenes). What it is though, no matter what, is a fine adventure film with a charismatic lead character and some wonderfully choreographed action sequences. It’s Bravheart, with subtitles. Some of the social and political commentary may get lost beneath the massive amounts of blood and body parts, but that echoed throughout the entire evening: At the end of the day, audiences want to be entertained, and Apocalypto does the trick. It’s tough, but I was able to separate the Mel Gibson scandal from my viewing of the film, as disgusting as his statements during his arrest were. Was I able to block it from my mind during the Q&A? Not at all. It’s an interesting situation for an artist and for the audience. I’ll be curious to see other reactions from the 200 others sitting around me tonight.