Apocalypto ★★★½

Apocalypto feels like a visceral tour through human brutality guided by a confident and masterful director who knows how to use the visual aspects of the film to tell the story clearly and stylistically. Mel Gibson doesn't shy away from the gore and the schlock that is inherent in the story but is able to utilize it to some great effect, even though it does border on gratuitous sometimes. With this film, Gibson proves that he has a lot of talent as a director and can create an effective, tense, visceral tale in a very compelling manner.

Yet, at the same time, I wish some of the other elements of the film were stronger than they were. The underlying assumptions around the central conceits and premise of this story are kind of troubling and I think that comes through in the film. It held the film back from being the great film that it could have been. The film explores the underlying human brutality that undercuts the brilliant advancements and complexities of modern civilizations. It clearly tries to draw the parallels between the Mayan civilization and ever other great societies, even the modern ones. Yet, the assumption of the filmmakers, and the film, is that the best way to illustrate human nature is to go back to a "simpler" time to a civilization that was clearly less evolved than our own.

In that way, the film takes an infantalizing and paternalistic attitude towards the characters and the civilization of the film that comes through. Clearly, the filmmakers weren't trying to do this given the thematic content that they were exploring. It straddles the line between having an almost Durkheimian curiosity and making a compelling argument about human nature and I think that it takes the film too far into the former than the later in the film as a whole.

Dramatically, this film works like a charm but I couldn't get over those assumptions and the attitudes the film took on the characters themselves. With all the underlying baggage that comes with those assumptions, I wish that this film could have avoided even some of those. Yet, Gibson shows that he can direct a very good film and this film is worth watching just to see how he constructs each scene and how he uses visuals to tell the story that he is trying to tell, even if that story has some underlying problems with its assumptions.