Apocalypto Mel Gibson

The words "meat grinder” come to mind; Apocalypto is a kinetic splatter of ground human flesh with a great plot, strong acting and handful of the most ferocious set pieces ever put to film. Director Mel Gibson (The Passion of the Christ) sets the pace early in this ultra-violent masterpiece and keeps the pedal to the metal for a full 125 minutes of grit, gore and historical meta-fiction.

The story involves the decline of the vast Mayan empire (sometime between 900 and 1500 A.D.) and a small village that gets swept up in the misery. Despite the film’s frenetic pacing (it’s essentially a chase narrative), Gibson manages to invest his characters with more raw humanity than a dozen lesser action films combined. And even though there’s a cast of thousands here (including digital crowd shots), there are at least ten memorable characters, each with distinct behaviour patterns, crucial plot contributions and genuine depth of character.

Contributing to this rich character palette is a strong international cast (many of whom learned the Mayan language for the film) and a virtuoso contribution from the costume and makeup teams — even the simple blue body paint that’s used to isolate a set of sympathetic characters comes loaded with meaning that evolves throughout the story. And where there is dialogue, it’s strong and brimming with subtext, hints of oral tradition and historical insight. All of this contributes to Apocalypto’s rich sense of allegory — civilisations in decline, humanity’s sad compulsion of consuming itself and the natural world, the power of family — but never so much that it gets in the way of the endlessly imaginative and poetically balanced action sequences that make up the bulk of the story.

It’s difficult to imagine a gorier film, but the graphic violence contributes to our visceral understanding of what those events must have been like. And because the characterisations are so strong, we’re more likely to feel a sense of loss about all this — the mysterious and horrible decline of an indigenous Latin American empire. Be sure to keep your eyes and ears peeled for one of Apocalypto’s few lights moments: a comically anachronistic Midnight Cowboy reference.

(Buena Vista)