Set in 15th-century Mesoamerica, Mel Gibson's follow-up to the bloodthirsty spectacle of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) is spoken entirely in Yucatec Mayan and suggests that the degenerate end of the once-great Mayan civilization holds urgent lessons for the contemporary world.
The film opens in media res, as a party of pierced, tattooed and ritually scarred jungle hunters kill a tapir through teamwork, ingenious primitive technology and sheer physical endurance. Tribal elder Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead) leads the group, which includes his thoughtful son, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), and the strapping Blunted (Jonathan Brewer), whose inability to impregnate his wife (Iazua Larios) makes him the butt of practical jokes that wouldn't be out of place in PORKY'S (1982). Their successful expedition is tainted by an encounter with a handful of traumatized men, women and children forced to flee their own lands by some catastrophe they can't even articulate. Jaguar Paw is so haunted by their abject terror that his father is compelled to warn him about the corrosive and contagious nature of fear. But Jaguar Paw dreams of the strangers that night and wakes to a living nightmare: Brutal warriors, led by the commanding Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), unleash an orgy of murder, rape and fire on the villagers. The stunned survivors are bound for a forced march through the jungle. Jaguar Paw is able to save his family, hiding his pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and their toddler in a deep pit at the edge of the jungle — a refuge that will become a trap if he doesn't return to get them out.
In a film thick with arresting images, the most breathtaking is the prisoners' destination: A Mayan city whose massive scale and symmetrical contours are as alien to them as would be a lunar colony. They enter through a degraded landscape of polluted water, filthy huts, withered crops and ghostly miners coated with poisonous limestone dust, passing through increasingly refined streets until they come face-to-face with soaring pyramids stained red by mass human sacrifices to the angry gods. Jaguar Paw's miraculous escape from this hell on earth triggers the film's second half — a race through the jungle to rescue Seven and their child from the refuge, hotly pursued by Zero Wolf and his minions. APOCALYPTO is a fascinating monster, equal parts breathtaking historical spectacle and down-and-dirty action movie in the tradition of THE NAKED PREY (1966), RUN OF THE ARROW (1957) and Italian exploitation shockers like MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY (1981). The key difference is that this war between vicious civilization and gentle rural values isn't defined by skin color. Barbarously beautiful and gut-wrenchingly (literally) violent, it's a mesmerizing vision of the past refracted through the dark obsessions of the present.
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