Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Passion of the Mayan

A review of Apocalypto. Tricky, given Gibson's recent track-record.

Trickier, because it's really not a very good movie, and I hate to kick an anti-Semite when he's down. But not very much.

The good stuff first, though. Mel Gibson has strengths as a filmmaker, and it would be churlish to ignore them. He's especially good, for example, at evoking a time. Much has been made of his various historical inaccuracies and anachronisms (personal favourites include Jesus in Passion of the Christ stating that a new style of table, or maybe chair, would 'catch on', and a bizarre bit of Mayan dialogue here stating "I'm walking here!"), but his times and places always FEEL solid.

So, we have a wonderful evocation of an ancient culture. The first tribe we encounter are given the same treatment that Costner figured out for Dance With Wolves - make 'em just ordinary folks. They laugh, they joke, they have ghastly mother-in-laws. It's not an original approach, but it does make life easier on a director who wants you to feel for the characters without, y'know, having to teach you a load of stuff.

But this virtue is also a curse. Because Gibson has no real interest in sharing the nuances of the culture he's portraying. The 'good' Mayans are just like us, only they're not so fussed about covering their buttocks; the 'bad' Mayans capture slaves, paint them, and then make sacrifices up on a big building.

It has something to do with pleasing a god or gods, apparently. About preventing disease and crop failure and...well, who knows what else. Ingrowning toenails, maybe.

Oh, you can boast about how all your dialogue is in the original language, but this has all the accuracy of a Star Wars stormtrooper.

Still, let's stick to the positive for a moment longer. Apocalypto, regardless of the marketing, is a chase movie first - a basic genre that this film chooses not to embroider with additional levels or subplots. And in that, it is partially effective. The first tedious hour of the film spends too, too long setting up characters just to kill them off, then drags out a journey from village to city until you really start to wonder if it's worth walking out.

But, just as you've got your bags together, our hero - Jaguar Paw - escapes the clutches of the bad Mayans and races home.

As he fights to evade his chasers to get back to his pregnant wife and child (currently trapped down a hole and starving), fending off jungle terrors such as a pissed-off Jaguar and swamp mud, there's tension aplenty. Jaguar Paw becomes a primitive McGuyver, taking out bad guys with poison darts adapted from thorns and a captured frog. As Predator-esque chase, it works just fine.

This is helped enormously by Gibson's devotion to realistic, gut-churning violence. Not for him the nice wounds of modern action cinema - 12A rated, suitable for older children - this stuff is a hard 18 and it bloody hurts. It's a rare thing these days, with most studios worried about high certification stamping on their profits, and great to see. Kinda.

The performances is are fine, if not especially textured. Heroes, villains, scared kids, wives with inner-strength, blah, blah, blah.

And that's about it for the good stuff. So, what's wrong here?

Well, taking the latter half on its merits - a simple chase movie needs to make enough sense that the audience don't question until they leave the room. Here, Apocalypto already starts to fail. A gang of kids are left alive when the bad guys kill or kidnap the village population (this never happened, by the way; they didn't steal random innocent people to sacrifice). These kids are deliberately left, and watch their families get taken away.

And not once does our hero shout back to them "I left my wife and child in a hole behind my house - make sure you chuck her a rope." Nor do the kids, apparently, return home and notice her screaming. Then, later, as the rain comes down, her hole starts to fill with water.

Two things here. How much rain does it take for a rocky mud-hole to fill up over six feet? Quite a lot.

And doesn't the human body tend to, y'know, float?

As our wife character starts to drown, apparently taking her son with her (oh, and the unborn baby, which GETS born with a laughable pop during this scene), we sit in the cheap seats, popcorn in hand, and shout "SWIM!!!!"

Other times, smart action movie ideas are ignored to drag things out. Jaguar Paw, looking like death, arrives at a mass grave site, bad guys right behind him. And no, apparently he hasn't seen the same movies we have, because he never considers lying down and playing dead. (And, given that there's no evidence of these mass graves in the first place, you'd think Gibson'd do SOMETHING with them.)

What else? Ghastly contrivance means that out hero is saved from sacrifice by a handy eclipse. Seriously. There's always a moon around when you want one.

And what do our sun-worshiping (I assume) baddies do? They rejoice - the gods are pleased, the killing can end. So, just take these saved sacrifices out the back and kill them, would ya?


Now, this might be some kind of commentary on the mixed natures and hypocrisies of politics and religion - potential sacrifices become collateral damage - only, if it is, nobody seems keen on saying so.

What it ACTUALLY is, it turns out, is an excuse to set our hero on the run. Because when they DO take him and his chums out back, it becomes The Ancient Running Man, with men let loose in pairs to be shot down for the amusement of the bad guys.

I'm not kidding.

Nor am I joking when I say that the latter half of the film is foretold by a diseased infant.

Yep, a sick, smallpoxed kid in a wiped-out settlement provides a prophesy to our captives and their captors - all vague stuff about serpents and rising from the earth. And whaddya know, it happens!

Except...hang on. The whole film is built on an opening quote (see later) suggesting that the Mayan religion is a corrupted, nonsensical, bloodthirsty crock. There's nothing mystical, it says - WE know what an eclipse really is, they don't. They choose to see magic in what is, in fact, wholly explicable. Their actions for their religion is what makes them doomed already.

So how is this kid able to tell the future? If not something from the local faith? Well - I'll come back to that in a while.

But even sidestepping the how, the method is lousy. Who makes prophesy about the ENTIRE FUTURE OF A CIVILIZATION to a small team of passing killers and their prey? The message never gets back to the chiefs and priests, word never spreads to the populous. In fact, when the few guys who heard the kid speak finally figure out it's a real, genuine prophesy (by encountering said serpent and the rest), their time's almost up. They die minutes or hours later.

It's like Nostradamus predicting huge, vital things...and then only telling his mate Geoff in the hours before Geoff blunders off a cliff. Where's the virtue in a genuine, accurate prophesy that nobody hears about?

So, moving on - that first half of the film. You all saw Passion of the Christ, right? No? Oh, well then permit me a moment of tangential ranting.

Passion isn't a film I have a lot of time for. Not because I lack faith - I do, but that didn't prevent me loving Scorsese's magnificent Last Temptation of Christ - but because I resent the hell out of bad cinema. For its lengthy running time, what you see mostly is this: Christ hurts, Christ walks, Christ falls. Repeat and repeat and repeat.

Now, before we get into a big thing here, I totally accept that this is probably the way it would have gone down. Ignoring the film's appallingly prevalent anti-Semitism, the actual torture-and-pain progression is horribly realistic. That's fine. You do feel it.

What you never got, not from the movie, is WHY.

Again, it's not my personal religious myth of choice, and there's a whole congregation of people who paid to see this mess of a film who know exactly why the poor chap is going through it. But where Last Temptation brilliantly conveyed the weight placed on a divine being in a human body - showing, in the end, just how important his execution must be - Gibson's movie just lets it happen. It's visceral, but it isn't understandable.

Nor, for that matter, is it triumphant. We watch this guy go through the ringer, and when death finally - after too, too long - takes him, it should be a kind of triumph. He dies for our sins, he saves mankind, right? Shouldn't that have at least the sense of power that James Bond gives us when he stops a bomb going off?

One last time - not my faith. But in this case my problems are in the lousy filmmaking, not the mythology. If what he does is important, prove it. Show it to me on-screen. Show me it matters.

And that's also where Apocalypto fails. Crikey, this bound journey from village to city (once again headed for public execution; it happened in Braveheart, too, public murder fans) takes a long time. Eons, it feels like. And, once again, we watch it all thinking 'Well, it's all very nasty - but what exactly is the point?'

A series of events is not a narrative. Pain doesn't automatically convey meaning.

The worst part of all this is the arrogance of the director. The film begins with a quote: "A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within". Suggesting a film that will comment significantly on that civilisation's downfall.

Nope. Wrong.

With all the bloodshed and murder, all the eclipse-driven decisions and body-painting, Gibson manages to say 'The Mayans were too sick to survive'. And just leaves it at that.

Because, while some reviewers have seen the arrival of the Christians at the end as negative, I think you'd be hard-pressed to take that away from the film's message. That's something we know for ourselves - the Christians turned up, and pretty soon disease and violent, sweeping murder was wiping out the indigenous population - but the film carries no such suggestion.

In fact, their arrival - little more than a few shots of ships at the climax - is viewed dispassionately. And, had the opening quotation not been included, that would have been the end of it. WITH that quote, though, it carries one ugly implication: 'What you have just seen is a society tearing itself apart from within. If it weren't already doing that, the Christians wouldn't be here.'

Carry that through, and you have 'Well, it was really their own fault'.

Already we're shown that the people are stricken with disease, which makes THAT not the fault of the arriving invaders. Now we're saying that their bizarre rituals and mythology (much of which, as I say, Gibson has made up for the movie) are the true cause of their downfall. They were already tearing themselves down. The Christians just...what? Watched?

So how was that kid able to tell the future? Whose words came from her mouth?

Couldn't have been the voice of God, could it?

And there it is. The objectional politics of Passion return and you really, really are watching a film by Mel 'Sugartits' Gibson. The Christian right are right, everyone else is wrong, and it's the cleansing fire of God that arrived on your shores that day.

That the film is badly paced, arrogant, and has pretences to both 'fact' and 'depth' is undeniable, and extremely irritating.

That it once again carries an under-message of such an objectionable nature - well, that's deplorable.

Save your money. Avoid this average film with its bitter aftertaste. And don't put any more money in Mel Gibson's pocket.


At Sat Feb 17, 03:47:00 pm, Anonymous Splange said...

Hurrah! Splange has worked out how to leave a comment on this thing without remembering any passwords!

Not that I've got anything insightful to say mind you. Just, y'know, hello. I'm here. That sorta thing. Oh, and that it doesn't say '0 comments' anymore! YAY!

At Wed Mar 07, 08:30:00 pm, Blogger sorking said...

Gosh - just noticed this! Hellooooooo!


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