Mel Gibson's Apocalypto proves once again that the ol' nutter knows his way around a camera. Were it a film debut, Apocalypto would be heralded as the introduction of a precocious wunderkind, but the Mel Gibson film evokes Yeats' eternal question: "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" Apocalypto is worth seeing, but be forewarned: this story of warring Mayan tribes on the eve of a civilization's collapse isn't terribly deep. It is, however, a rip-roaring, ultraviolent action picture that, thanks to its novel setting, seems more important than it is.
The good: as an epic genre picture, Apocalypto is impressively mounted, with lush cinematography by Dean Semler and colorful production design by Tom Sanders serving a script by Gibson and Farhad Safinia (entirely in an ancient Mayan dialect, the dialogue is subtitled). The picture follows rural villager Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) on his quest to escape capture and return to his pregnant, trapped wife (Dalia Hernandez) before she pops. On this score, Apocalypto engages hope...but wait, there's more: nature versus man, and man versus man. Jaguar Paw's paces include outrunning an actual face-eating jaguar, contending with a waterfall and quicksand, and dodging various attempts at human sacrifice, making Apocalypto a thrill ride of primal savagery and human endurance.
Gibson does worry over a couple of muddled themes. Primarily, he insists that man has a hole that can never be filled; his greed and desire are insatiable. But it's an argument undercut by his virtuous hero and heroine (whose worst sin is laughing along at the bullying of one hapless villager). A secondary theme is "apocalypto," poured on the story like Gibson's Own blue-cheese dressing. The absurd magic realism of a diseased child's spooky psychic visions ("Would you like to know how you will die?") prefigures the fall of the Mayan Empire, first at its own hands and eventually by threats from without (the writer-director begins the film with a Will Durant epigram: "A great civilization is not destroyed from without until it is destroyed from within").
The bad: though Apocalypto can be fearsome, it can also be silly—as when an enemy chieftain bellows, "I am walking here!" like a Mayan Ratso Rizzo—and too in love with locker-room humor: sight gags about testicles and oral sex (Apocalypto's Chapter One is a comedy of conception). For all of the film's natural splendor and cultural color, Gibson shows little interest in contextualizing Mayan beliefs and lifestyles—they're merely trappings for an adventure with a faux Shyamalanish ending. And at 134 minutes, Gibson's Most Dangerous Game seems needlessly protracted.
The ugly: as a filmmaker, Gibson is his own worst enemy. Gibson's notorious reputation aside (as it should be), Apocalypto nevertheless betrays its filmmaker's immature personality and dubious embracement of diversity. Gibson's Mayan civilization is reduced to either the pleasant simplicity of self-sufficient villages or the nasty incipient industry, kill-or-be-killed aggression (murder for sporting fun), and blood-soaked superstition of the temple-shadowed city (murder for religious profit). As in The Passion of the Christ, Gibson's empathy extends only as far as feeling his characters' pain.
As such, Gibson's sadism overshadows story and character and history. A purely exploitative treatment of a Mayan temple sacrifice suggests outtakes from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: the extended sequence glories in excising still-pulsing hearts and bouncing severed heads down the temple stairs (so that's why they built them so tall!). It's a matter of tone, and Gibson fairly revels in torturous enslavement and brutal execution.
A particularly obnoxious dose of Gibson's cinematic fetishism comes when he paints his sacrificial victims Braveheart blue, as if to say: no, this isn't a Martin Scorsese Film, or a Spike Lee Joint, but a Mel Gibson Punishment. Merry Christmas.