Tyler Williams has a nice review of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. He neither liked nor disliked the movie, which sums up my attitude, though I was nonplussed for different reasons.
Let’s get the supposed interfering Catholicism out of the way. I agree with Tyler that charges of apologetics are misguided. While Gibson certainly believes the Mayan civilization needed to be destroyed — and that the Spaniards who arrive at the end of the film represent something better in the long run — those beliefs do not intrude on the integrity of the story. Tyler notes:
“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.'”
Jaguar Paw’s realistic refusal to want anything to do with the Spaniards is what keeps the film clean of apologetics. Gibson is thus able to hint at “better things to come” (in his view) while remaining true to his protagonist who wants nothing to do with whatever those things might be. This is a Catholic film in signature only, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But if Gibson is clean on the religio-political side of things, he misses the mark in artistry. I’m not complaining about the violence, which has frankly been way overblown. Spielberg got more graphic with human sacrifice 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 Return of the King (Gibson keeps the rolling heads in distance-shots). 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 the protagonist would rescue his wife and son at the last possible instant. But I liked the first half of the story for the glimpse we catch of the Mayan civilization.
In sum, Apolcaypto isn’t the achievement Passion of the Christ was, more like Braveheart: historically engaging in some parts, boring and predictable in others, competently enough directed, yet marred by Hollywood formula.