Sorry to disappoint the eager faithful, but Mad Mel’s long-awaited Apocalypto is by no means the grand folly we’d all hoped – which is not to say that it’s any good. Indeed, for this viewer, who has thus far managed to avoid the Passion juggernaut, there’s not enough fuel for outrage in Mel’s jungle trek. There’s some particularly bloody violence, sure – and some of it certainly gratuitous – but far from the expected psychopathological tour through the Mind of Mel, Apocalypto is notable mainly for its utter conventionality. Not every producer/director would have wanted to make a jungle epic with unknown foreign actors speaking an indigenous tongue, or been able to secure studio financing for it, but almost any reasonably competent director could have turned out what we see on the screen, and how we see it.
The easy barbs aside, Gibson’s certainly not a bad director, in the technical sense. If he evinces no real personality of his own, he’s learned well from his mentors, and has a particular knack for giving large crowd scenes some subtly dynamic visual interest, rather than just relying on teeming masses to supply the effect on their own (as captives are brought through a village, feathers fly through the air as village women pluck chickens en masse, and men whip wet sheets around to send arcing volleys of water through the frame). His chief failing is simply that he has learned to make movies in Hollywood, and Hollywood filmmaking techniques exert a homogenizing effect on all the story material they touch – even that which is supposed to plunge us into an entirely different, alien world.
Gibson’s Mayans might have sticks through their nose and looped earlobes, but they walk, talk (even in dialect), pose, gesture, and are filmed like any actor in any other Hollywood movie. One of Malick’s many accomplishments with The New World was to make his natives different without turning them into alien Others or objects of exoticism: these people walked, moved, acted differently from the whites they encountered (who, to Malick’s equal credit, walk, move, and act differently than whites do today). Imagination has to function alongside any surface “authenticity” in order to fully immerse us in some strange and distant environment – Gibson’s technique in Apocalypto, on the other hand, would be equally valid for Lethal Weapon 5 (God forbid).
Gibson’s utterly conventional choices, while not “ruining” the movie, thus render it singularly uninvolving, even during its more clever and lively moments. Ultimately, the greatest entertainment comes from totting up the visual and narrative cliches that really gather steam in the last 45 minutes or so; my personal favourite being the single, fateful (and slow motion!) drop of blood that gives away the hero’s hiding place to his pursuers (made all the better as the villains have been eviscerating people all morning, thus, one would think, rendering precise blood identification more problematic). So fulminators of moral outrage will unfortunately have to look elsewhere, as Mel even has the historical sense to identify, in the closing frames, the titular catastrophe with the arrival of the European conquerors – though according to The Fountain, the natives should really welcome them as liberators.