by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

On the surface, Apocalypto is an ambitious and richly imagined art film about the decline of a great civilization, the Mayan empire. It's performed entirely in Mayan, with subtitles. That's about as arthouse as it comes.

Yet inside this structure is a completely conventional script idea: a man is taken from his family and swears to return to them. He is kidnapped from his village after managing to get his wife and son to shelter, then eventually escapes from his captors and leads them on a lengthy pursuit back to his home.

The intellectual arthouse film and the action/adventure film make an uneasy marriage; so uneasy, in fact, that the film essentially divorces them. The first half of the film is about the corruption and decadence that destroyed what was probably the greatest civilization of the Americas. The Mayans had sophisticated art and architecture, a written language, and fairly accurate concepts of math and astronomy. Although they never achieved the levels of sophistication attained by the Greeks and Romans in classical antiquity, there was probably a time before the Renaissance when they were more sophisticated than Europeans in many ways. Their achievements of their civilization, however, were spoiled by an undercurrent of barbarism and human sacrifice, and a priestly class that gained too much power over their lives. Apocalypto brings this ancient civilization, with all of its wonders and terrors, vividly to the screen, and breathes life into the paintings and temples that we have previously only seen in tours and museums.

The sights and sounds of Mayan civilization are the stage which impresses our eyes and ears, but our minds are engaged by the people upon that stage for, as the film shows, they are no different from us. They have beloved dogs. They treasure their children. They have problems with nagging mother-in-laws, infertility, and erectile dysfunction. They play practical jokes on one another and laugh heartily. They tell stories which entertain and instruct. They are capable of both compassion and cruelty at about the same levels we see in people today. They fear the unknown. They resort to religious explanations when they should trust in objective observation. They implore their gods for mercy, and are willing to commit atrocities in the name of those gods.

The script leads us to believe that it will look deep inside their culture and see how it self-destructed, and it does keep that promise for about 90 intense and fascinating minutes. Then it becomes a different film. All the philosophical underpinnings are abandoned, and it becomes a chase film in which our hero runs through the jungle pursued by his former captors. There's nothing wrong with this part of the film. In its way it is just as intense as the harrowing first part,  but it doesn't have much to do with 16th century Mayan civilization. It's just a bunch of half-naked guys running through the jungle in their underpants. They could be southern Asians in the 6th century, or even vestigial Stone Age tribesmen of the 21st century, if somewhere deep within the Amazon Basin. The movie's original premise, the internal decay of the Mayan culture, is essentially abandoned to present the usual jungle story filled with snakes and big cats and quicksand and waterfalls. It's a good story, but is told at the cost of abandoning the original premise.

Apocalypto has one other element which can be very annoying: overuse of the deus ex machina. A script can get away with one miraculous intercession of fate in the interest of a good yarn, but miracles and coincidences happened so often in this film that the story lost all subtlety. Just as our hero is about to have his heart cut out on the sacrificial altar, with the blade about to descend, there is a solar eclipse which is taken as an omen, and he is spared. Later, at the very moment when he is about to be overtaken and devoured by a jaguar, he inadvertently runs into his pursuers  - and the jaguar turns on them instead. Toward the end of the film, he is about to be overtaken by the last of the hunting party and is on an open beach with no place left to hide, when the Spanish conquistadors sail onto shore and distract his enemies, allowing him to get back and rescue his family from their own series of Paulinic perils.

Talk about a charmed life!

One caution on historical accuracy as well: the experts claim that the sets of Apocalypto are all taken from Mayan ruins and artifacts, but represent a historical mish-mash of different centuries and different locations which have been condensed into one time and place in the interest of dramatizing the culture more cinematically. Furthermore, the urban culture portrayed here, according to anthropologists,  is actually more like the culture of the Aztecs, with a few touches of decadent imperial Rome thrown in for good measure. The crazed, assembly-line human sacrifice shown here was not a common part of Mayan culture, if it existed at all.

Having noted those liabilities or potential liabilities, let me point out that Apocalypto is a brilliant and underrated movie. Most Hollywood filmmakers are offering us the same old pablum in a new jar, but Apocalypto is genuinely original and audacious. The film's creators rebuilt the heart of Mayan civilization, populated it with breathing and recognizably real human beings, and told their story entirely in their own language. The sights and sounds are imaginative, powerful and consistently engrossing. The action is unremittingly intense and involving. Most important, Apocalypto includes a grand and sweeping story told well, which in turn provides the framework for an smaller, more personal story which is also told well.

While Apocalypto seems to represent a lapse in Mel Gibson's renowned gift for knowing what the people want (the box office was tepid), there is no evidence of any lapses in Mel's filmmaking skills. This film is arguably better than some of the Oscar nominees in several categories for which it was not nominated. (It received only three minor nominations for achievements in sound and make-up.) Even in the grand prize category, I find it hard to believe that people think Little Miss Sunshine was a better film than Apocalypto or Children of Men, and I am the guy who has consistently argued that comedies should receive a place at the adult table. I believe that this film would have been nominated for far more awards if director Mel Gibson had created it under a pseudonym. It seems to me that the film was punished for the real or imagined sins of its creator.


 * Features to be announced






It was nominated for three Oscars: two for sound and one for make-up.

3.5 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
4 BBC (of 5 stars)
66 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
68 Metacritic.com (of 100)


7.6 IMDB summary (of 10)
B Yahoo Movies


Box Office Mojo. It fell sort of hit status, but will probably still be profitable after the ancillary revenue streams kick in. It grossed $50 million in a maximum of 2465 theaters. Although it opened #1 in its week, it did not come out at a particularly auspicious time of the year. It was released in early December rather than during the Christmas season, so that winning weekend was only $15 million.

It grossed an additional $37 million overseas.


  • Many bare-breasted women are seen in a non-sexual context, including co-star Dalia Hernandez.
  • Given the costumes of ancient Guatemala, virtually every man's behind is on display.



Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It is boldly original version of a conventional adventure story, filled with sights and sounds we have not seen portrayed on screen before.