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Apocalypto

July 31, 2007

 

What was I thinking?

Well, if I was Dostoyevsky I’d have been thinking:

I was particularly worried about Svidrigaïljinklyovov. I might be said to be permanently thinking of Svidrigaïljinklyovov. From the time of Svidrigaïljinklyovov’s too menacing and unmistakable words in Sonia’s room at the moment of Katerina Ivanovna’s death, the normal working of his mind seemed to break down. Finding myself in a solitary and remote part of Peterborgrad, in some wretched eating-house, sitting alone lost in thought, hardly knowing how I had come there, I suddenly decided to go to the movies.

 

Or, maybe as Carlos Ruiz Zafón:

It was early in the winter of 2007, and I walked through the sullen streets of Peterbóralla, trapped beneath ashen skies as the evening poured over Ramble de Santa Tracey in a wreath of liquid tar. “Wonder what’s on at the flicks?” I thought, my heart an unfaithful and fickle mechanical toy, much like the mechanical toys my father gave me. When I was a boy, obviously. Years ago. Anyway.

 

Or even David Peace:

Peterborough-
Cambridge deserted and barren, Peterborough twice that hell and more-
A collision of the worst of times, the worst of hells-
The Medieval, the Victorian, and the Concrete:
The dark arches, black mists and broken windows of industrial decay, industrial murder, industrial hell-
rats rats rats-
Dead city abandoned to the crows, the rain, and the Showcase Cinema.

 

 

Or Danny Wallace:

It was 8am. My phone was ringing. What kind of society do we live in, where someone can make your phone ring at 8am. There should be rules. Fuck it, forget that; how bloody lucky am I? I shared a flat with a guy who does decent stand-up and all of a sudden I have a career simply because I’m associated with him, despite me being a talentless oik. Magic! I’m off to see that new Mel Gibson movie. IN THE MIDDLE OF THE AFTERNOON! BECAUSE I CAN! HA!

Or something. Anyway, I have no real excuse. I just wanted to use different ways to say I was at a loose end in Peterborough. And when that happens you either get the hell out or go to the cinema. Go, go on, go to Peterborough. You’ll soon be agreeing with me. I guess I had a plan to see Perfume but, this being Peterborough and the Showcase, movies like that get one late showing and that’s your lot. I walked in, saw what was on offer and turned to go…then I thought, no, I do want to see something, and that something ended up being the film that was just about to start, Mel Gibson’s latest, Apocalypto.

The big ol’ anti-semite’s follow-up to the bemusingly successful Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ, has a lot in common with that previous religious epic, including an obscure subtitled language (Yucatec) and huge doses of slo-mo violence. It all takes place in the dying days of the Mayan civilisation as young deep-forest village braves are stolen by big-city hunters eager for human sacrifice (their crops are dying, their society is immoral and bankrupt, they need tp appease their gods, blah blah).

Immdiately, from the lack of front-end titles (like in, er, Apocalypse Now!), you can tell that Mel wants this to have the kudos of an arthouse epic; the subtitles and the portentous dialogue (everyone delivers stuff like “We must go to the forest. To seek a new beginning. Come,” with such earnest steel-eyed determination you can’t help but laugh) exude an arrogant auteur-delusion, but in the end this is simply a blockbuster historical action flick, and not a very good one either. Count the cliches: waterfall jump to freedom, quicksand almost claiming the hero before one determined hand rises from the slime – the music swells – and he pulls himself free, poison darts, final showdown with the evil slave squad leader (in slo-mo, in the rain), etc, etc. It’s all in there. Oh, and there’s a twist.

I yawned.

There are some enormous plot holes, too, not least the fact that – as we’re told at great and dramatic length at the start – the village tribe (happy, peace-loving, community- and child-centric little munchkins, all of them healthy and with enviable musculature, natch) have been hunting the forest for generations. Now, small anthropological point here, if I may. These guys are hunter/gatherers, and what that means is that parties would (and still do in many places) travel for days and days and miles and miles to find food or resources. When they’re captured by the Mayan slave party, they’re taken back to this humungous city not two days’ travel away. They stay about 20 minutes (the most interesting segment, and the part of the movie the trailers seem determined to highlight) in the city, escape, then go home. Essentially, they’re away for about 4 days max. And yet they’ve been unaware of this extraordinary place since, well, forever.

Yeah. Right.

This is not a film about the Mayan civilisation; its cityscapes and rituals and bizarre pyramid ceremonies form but a tiny central section. I wanted political intrigue, some societal insight, a dissection of the culture, but it’s over in the time it takes to cut three heads off (not that long as it turns out). What it is a film about, is creative arrogance. Mel is not an intuitive or innovative film-maker, his shots are flat and uninspired and riven with cliche. But surely what’s worse is his motivation. Ask yourself, what has driven him to make two grandiose spectacles shot through with incomprehensible language and ultraviolence? We all have different ways of expressing ourselves, and sometimes we take on different voices, but what’s Mel’s real voice? Maybe he’s too scared to use it.

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