That's really too bad because -- here comes one of those reviews -- he's made a film that's already won a spot on my list of Top 10 films for 2006.
Apocalypto is an epic story of a journey from paradise to hell and possibly back again. A quick look at the film's poster -- a silhouetted man stands in front of a Mayan pyramid, holding a bloody dagger in his hand -- suggests that this will be grim going. What a surprise then that after a brief and wild tapir hunt, the film turns to many notes of joy and levity. The script even offers up a Mayan mother-in-law joke in a peaceful forest village. But soon the mood shifts.
The central figure in this sprawling adventure story is Jaguar Paw (Native American actor Rudy Youngblood), and the forest setting is perfect to show how this tribe reveres nature -- mostly through shots of monkeys and birds, of the vast landscape, of the big and beautiful sky. When a vicious and heavily armed tribe brutally attacks the little village with knives and clubs, and one of the leaders is killed, we see, from his point of view, how death leads him to become one with nature. It's a thoughtful, poetic moment.
But there's not a lot of poetry beyond that point as Apocalypto becomes a story of survival. Jaguar Paw makes it through the attack and manages to hide away his son and his pregnant wife. But he's taken prisoner, shackled to bamboo poles with other villagers, and led off by the marauders.
The script, by Gibson and Farhad Safinia, conveys that the film's heroes (as well as its villains) are very spiritual. They believe there's a reason for everything, from the birth of a new child to the act of human sacrifice. There's no English spoken -- the dialogue is in the Yucateco dialect of the Mayan language -- and there's not exactly a wealth of subtitles, but all thoughts and actions are easily understood. Part of the reason the film works so well has to do with Youngblood's expressive face. His character goes through a lot of anguish, but he always has hope burning inside. And it's all there in his eyes.
Gibson, as he showed a decade ago in Braveheart, has an incredible eye and ear for spectacle. His massive crowd scenes in a Mayan city are amazing, and the cacophony -- as a bloodlust-stricken crowd gets pumped up over human sacrifices -- is almost dizzying.
Gibson's (and cinematographer Dean Semler's and composer James Horner's) skills are best shown off in a thrilling, fast-paced, grueling chase through the forest, complete with exquisite use of slow-motion and close-ups, that takes up a staggering 40 minutes of screen time.
The film offers major doses of action, plenty of blood, and piles of dead bodies. But except in rare instances, those visuals are not repulsive.
As for the ending: The film's title translates from the ancient Greek as "new beginning."