I remember hearing great things about Apocalypto late in 2006. But somehow I just wasn’t moved to check it out. A film following the events of some native tribe? Subtitled? Nah, I’ll pass. And despite continued praise that I would hear, I put the film about as low in my Netflix queue as possible. (Just above the films that I always smash down to the bottom the closer they get to shipping.) Once again, I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong. I certainly am not a fan of this type of film, but without question this is one of the most visceral, engrossing, captivating and unpredictable films I’ve seen. Ever.
First of all, if you haven’t seen this film and you have plans on seeing it, you really don’t need to read a review from me to know why you’ll appreciate it. Just get up….go to the video store….or go to your Netflix/Blockbuster queue and put this film as number one. Now. Then read on after you’ve seen it. I don’t plan on spoiling the film, but the film is so good that there’s no need to “sell” it. The one caveat I must emphasize is that the film is incredibly visceral. If you were the least bit bothered by the first 10 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, then perhaps you should reconsider.
Giving the most general description possible, Apocalypto is a film about the events of a group of villagers during the end of the Mayan civilization. That’s all you get, because that’s all you need. I went into Apocalypto knowing nothing about the film other than a few unmemorable viewings of the trailer. This ended up making the experience incredibly engrossing for me. This is a ride. And where you think you might be going isn’t necessarily where you are headed.
Apocalypto stars a cast of virtual unknowns. No disrespect intended — I’m trying to emphasize the fact that the film is incredible despite the fact that there are incredible acting performances here without any of these folks having really acted in a film this big. Without checking IMDB I wouldn’t know any of their names. And having briefly checked it before the writing of this review, most of the principal actors have less than two films to their credit.
Regardless of how you may feel about Mel Gibson, this man is truly a talent. Watching Apocalypto is similar to watching two hours of the Discovery Channel as they follow a tribe. It just has the most authentic feel. We’re getting an inside look into the village and you feel almost as if you’re fearful that they’ll notice the Discovery Channel cameraman sneaking in on their lives. Not only do they not notice the Discovery Channel cameraman, but they turn in such terrific and emotional performances that you have to wonder how many takes Mel Gibson had to shoot to get this thing to be this perfect. The choreography of the fighting and crowds makes this one of the truly epic films of this decade.
Few films have been able to evoke the kind of fear that has me literally sitting on the edge of my seat. Saving Private Ryan was one film that just had me holding my heart every time they went into battle. 28 Days Later also had me shaking, after establishing the fact that there was loyalty to no one and that they’d infect who they wanted. Apocalypto has this same sense of true unpredictability. It’s almost more than your heart can take at some points.
The film is done entirely in the native Mayan tongue. Not quite sure if this is the actual language or if this is some modified form of the language made for Hollywood. But the entire film is subtitled. Now, this definitely will cause some people to lose interest. But please — don’t let this bother you. The film is so powerful that seeing it without reading the subtitles, while it would minimize your understanding of the events slightly, would still deliver an experience that was as good as any film released in 2006.
The only hesitation I would have to recommending this film goes back to my earlier warning — the film is incredibly visceral. You’re following a village of tribes who live by hunting. Clashes with neighboring tribes are bound to happen. But the way that the human body is treated here is a bit much for many folks to take. Lots of violence here. I even found myself wincing a bit at the piercings and mutilation of the actors — I’m not sure if it was great makeup for all or if it was actual piercings for some, but it was a bit disturbing.
Apocalypto is one of the few films where I actually want to see the “Making of” featurette and listen to the director’s commentary. It’s a marvel of modern cinema that these scenes and scenery can even be shot in this day and age and not have the feel that they were prettied-up to please Hollywood executives. This is a powerful film. At over two hours, your nerves will be shot by the end, but you’ll wonder how two hours went so quickly. This is the kind of experience that justifies the purchase of a surround sound system and high-definition television display. Don’t miss it.