Apocalypto Previw at Fantastic Fest
A version of this ran in the French magazine L'Ecran Fantastique under the byline Anna Hanks Sicard
No matter what you think of Mel Gibson’s religion and politics—
especially following The Passion of the Christ and Gibson’s drunken
anti-Semitic comments on Malibu’s Pacific Coast Highway—Gibson
makes a darn fine action movie.
That was clear when writer/director/producer Gibson accompanied by
the actor playing the lead role of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood),
screened the unfinished Mayan epic Apocalypto at the Austin, Texas
Fantastic Fest in September.
Apocalypto is a wild and visually stunning action-adventure drama
that is far more enjoyable than anything filmed in the Yucatec Maya
language ought to be. The screening was subtitled in English.
Apocalypto is Greek for “a new beginning” and the story is set
just before the Spanish conquer the New World.
The film begins with a hunters eye view of crashing through the
lush green rainforest in pursuit of a fast black mammal. Working
together, the hunters cleverly send the sleek animal into a fatal
trap. Meat in tow, they return to their village of tidy huts where
a feast follows. The party gives us time to study the amazing
tattoos, scarification and tooth modifications engineered by the
film’s 400-plus makeup artists.
This peaceful ideal ends when the village is savagely attacked by
a band of outsiders looking for slaves, gruesomely killing anyone
not easily subdued.
Jaguar Paw–whose name reflects the importance of the jaguar in
Mayan warrior culture– manages to hide his hugely pregnant wife
and their young child inside a deep crevice before being captured.
With the shattered village smoking behind them– corpses on the
ground and shocked children staring in terror– the remaining
villagers are roped together and marched through the jungle. At the
Mayan capital the captives are led through highly detailed and
crowded streets. (In May, Time Magazine reported that production
designer Tom Sanders and his crew spent six months building the
Soon the captives are painted blue, marched up to the top of a
stair-stepped temple pyramid, and greeted with much fanfare by a
huge crowd eager to see them become ritual human sacrifices. At the
top of the pyramid a man in a feathered headdress pulls a still-
beating heart from a blue-painted captive. Mothers anoint their
babies heads in the fresh blood of the sacrifices.
This Mayan ritual sacrifice might seem like a Hollywood
embellishment. However the Mayans were obsessed with blood, and
ritual bloodletting was important for many Mayan events.
Apocalypto’s website tells us the Mayans had over 160 deities who
were petitioned and appeased through animal and human sacrifices.
Gibson said during the Q&A session following the screening that the
blue paint is historically accurate, it’s not just a color he likes
using (It’s a similar shade to Braveheart blue).
Desperate to return to his family, blue-painted Jaguar Paw
becomes a fugitive, pursued by someone with a personal vendetta.
He’s hunted much as he hunted the animal in the film’s opening
sequence. The second half of the film becomes a chase reminiscent
of The Fugitive, with good pacing and inventive cinematography.
Time Magazine reported that the film was done using Panavision’s
Genesis, a system that yields a “tremendous sensation of velocity,”
according to the Oscar-winning cinematographer Dean Semler. (Dances
As Jaguar Paw, Youngblood leads the cast of indigenous actors,
many of whom had never acted before.
“I think this is the first big film that’s starring all
indigenous peoples,” Gibson said at the Q &A.
While 16th century indigenous culture might be a stretch for many
modern-day people, Gibson said he tried to make the film accessible.
“It’s mythic, and the characters are archetypical” said Gibson,
saying that he was a fan of Joseph Campbell, best known for his
book “The Power of Myth”. For example, Gibson said that the way one
warrior is tormented by his mother in law, because he has been
unable to get his wife pregnant, is something that people can
It’s difficult judging an unfinished project, and the Apocalypto I
saw was clearly a work in progress.
— “ I don’t know how many half finished movies you get to
see”….Gibson said, acknowledging the film’s shortcomings. He also
said it was his first time seeing the film on a big screen. He (and
I) noted that some of the special effects looked “cheesy” (sloppily
done and not convincing) and needed to be fixed. There were also
unfinished effects, including the screen with the words “ Middle
Eye goes over falls.”
The test screening was shown with a temporary sound track. Gibson
promised the finished Apocalypto would be scored by James Horner
using primitive instruments.
If the film cleans up like Gibson says it will, Apocalypto
certainly promises to be an amazingly powerful film.