When Jaguar Paw and his fellow enslaved villagers pass through a massive Mayan lime quarry, the imagery is of industrial ghosts. Animated corpses. Bodies caked in white lime that clouds the air and ground, clings to everything that passes, rises from mills in a great premonition of some horrible fate.
Set in early 16th century Yucatan, Mayan culture is in decline. Unbeknownst to them, European settlers are on the way. A blood frenzy has gripped the cities -blood to appease the gods and alleviate failing crops and spiraling birth rates. Oceans of blood, a scarlet tide fit to match its blue sister, the sea, the very thing bringing their new masters and echoed in the paint that covers sacrificial victims.
Blue is the color of apocalypse.
Jaguar Paw and friends, dripping blue, are dragged to the top of a ziggurat and before masses writhing in dark ecstasy await a gruesome fate. What happens next in Apocalypto, in my feeble consideration Mel Gibson's best film as a writer and director, won't be ruined here. I don't want to give the whole thing away. I will say, however, that it is worthwhile. As a film about cultural decline, it is inspired and resonates not a little with our contemporary situation.
It makes Avatar, its box office-conquering counterpart, look like a simple and simplistic morality tale.
I'm impressed for several reasons. Mel Gibson is not well versed in that little thing called nuance, and his deft use of it is unprecedented in the career of a man usually associated with blockhead dialogue and torture porn. With Apocalypto he comes across the sensitive artiste. That said, let's circle back to the original notion that you haven't seen Avatar until you've seen this.
You can't appreciate it without a film like this one, with depth and historical detail and even, yes, nuance.
Because as much as Apocalypto is at its roots a chase story -Jaguar Paw spends half the movie on the run- it dodges the shallow spirituality and mass destruction of Avatar; it has the same kind of blue bombast, but with the vital difference of creating a deeper look at cultural decay. Where in Avatar the threat comes from marauding humans bent on obtaining material wealth with runaway greed, a clear and present danger on this or any planet, granted, the native Navi are presented as undivided in wholesomeness and purity. That works for a special effects bonanza, if that is what you are going for, yet I find it intriguing that Mel Gibson has produced a film as bombastic as it is thought-provoking for its portrayal of people suffering from their own, enslaved by their own, wiped out by their own -in the name of survival.
And it is exactly at the end that a very different question is asked. What will survive? The lens of history, as opposed to that of a 3-D camera, would suggest that what survives is blindness to true threats. We can see in Apocalypto a caution from Mayan decline, but also to all societal decay; that it comes in painted pleasantly blue but marks the end of something that wishes it could be eternal.
It is widely reported that James Cameron has an Avatar trilogy in mind and it may be that he has not shown us the depths of exploring the question of native peoples' futile attempts to stave modernity. Even so, Mel Gibson, of all people, has beat him to the punch.