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Apocalypto, Violence, and Spectacle

20th December 2006

Nothing like a bit of human sacrifice to get you in the mood for Christmas! I saw Mel Gibson‘s latest film, Apocalypto last night. While I am still ruminating on the meaning and significance of this film, I can’t say I liked it, nor can I say I didn’t like it (similar to my reactions to Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ). To say I found the film “intriguing” is probably the most accurate. (Spoiler Alert)

If you take the opening quotation from Will Durant (“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within”) as a hermeneutical lens through which to view the entire film, then Gibson is perhaps providing a commentary on the decadence and spectacle of modern western civilization. Of course, if this was his point, Gibson is complicit by making such a violent and gory film. Perhaps the irony was lost on him as it often is on much of Hollywood.

Others have took the film as an apology of sorts for Catholicism, seeing the coming of the Spaniards at the end as a sign of the coming of Christianity and a better civilization. This to me makes no sense. If anything, the end provides an ironic reversal as the hunter now becomes the hunted (this of course raises questions of the role — if any — of the colonial powers in the decline of Mayan civilization). If anything is elevated in this film it is the notion of the noble savage: Jaguar Paw and his forest dwelling clan are presented as an ideal (this seems to me to be the meaning from the last line of the film where Jaguar Paw says to his wife that they shouldn’t go to the Spaniards, but “we must go to the forest. To seek a new beginning. Come, Turtles Run….”).

Peter Chattaway provides a similar interpretation when he reads the film through an oracle given by a little girl near the middle of the film. According to Chattaway, the girl says to the violent Mayans,

You fear me. So you should, all you who are vile. Would you like to know how you will die? The sacred time is near. Beware the blackness of day. Beware the man who brings the jaguar. Behold … [something about the man rising from the mud]. For the one he takes you to will cancel the sky and scratch out the earth. Scratch you out.

And it is the Catholic Spaniards who bring an end to the violent Mayan civilization.

Whatever its meaning, this film is violent and gory. Of course, many would say that the violence and gore is all in the name of verisimilitude and historical accuracy, so it is acceptable. I am not so sure any more. It seems to me that the film industry is caught up with the spectacle of violence and that such extreme violence and gore in film can not help but degrade all who watch it.

At any rate, those are my initial thoughts on the film.

UPDATE: You may want to check out Loren Rosson’s review here.


5 Responses to “Apocalypto, Violence, and Spectacle”

  1. Jeremy Pierce Says:

    I haven’t seen it, but a friend of mine thought of the Spanish as something like the biblical portrayals of Assyria and Babylon, carrying out divine judgment but not necessarily seeing it that way themselves and certainly not doing so blamelessly.

  2. Loren Rosson III Says:

    Frankly I think the violence was way overrated for a Gibson film. Spielberg was more graphic in the sacrifice scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (where you actually see the priest’s hand going into the heart, and the camera lingers on the pulsating heart much longer), and Peter Jackson showed more close-ups of decapitated heads being catapulted over the walls of Minas Tirith (in Apocalypto the rolling heads are all kept at a distance).

    The film left me nonplussed not on account of its violence (I was expecting more), but its pedestrian second half, which was essentially an extended chase sequence — almost an ancient version of The Fugitive — thoroughly predictable, knowing that wifey and son would be rescued at the last possible instant. But I did like the first half for the glimpse we catch of the Mayan civilization.

  3. Ken Says:

    It seems to me that the film industry is caught up with the spectacle of violence and that such extreme violence and gore in film can not help but degrade all who watch it.

    I’m encouraged by this comment, Tyler. I think you can also simply substitute the words “sexuality” or “immorality” for violence and have another true statement. Indeed, this is the point I tried to make sometime ago in our discussion over Art House Films. I can certainly appreciate that Gibson is a gifted filmmaker, as are many so-called “Art House” filmmakers, but the “spectacle” often far exceeds what is necessary to tell the story effectively. Still, I appreciate this is a relative statement. One of my favourite movies of all time is Eyes Wide Shut which is arguably a spectacle of sexuality and immorality–I would simply argue it’s defensible in light of the purpose of the movie. At the same time, I have seen the unedited and edited versions of Eyes Wide Shut and must admit that the edited version, which conceals a lot of the sex acts in the climatic scene (hmmm… interesting choice of words… oh well), is not really inferior so perhaps there too I must admit the spectacle is more than is necessary.

  4. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    Hey Loren… fair enough about the violence. I didn’t find it presented in an exploitative way (like slasher films), it was just ubiquitous. And I don’t think it really furthered the plot.

    I totally agree with your assessment of the second half of the film. There was a point when the chase was on through the jungle that I leaned over to my friend and said, “there’s going to be a river and waterfall coming up so he can escape.” And guess what happened, lo and behold, a waterfall?! (Of course, I guess it was different in that those pursuing also took the leap!)

    And Ken, I agree, though I don’t think that all violence in film is wrong (and you agree), and the film we were discussing back then (Palindromes) was perhaps an effective use of “spectacle” to make the filmaker’s point (like Eyes Wide Shut).

  5. Loren Rosson III Says:

    Thanks Tyler. You inspired me to write my own review, engaging with yours.