Love it or loathe it, nobody can take away the ambition found within Apocalypto and the controversial director behind it. Mel Gibson has bold ideas that are presented well in his early works. From an entertaining butchering of William Wallace’s life in Braveheart to a muddled and simple, but emotionally effective look at war in Hacksaw Ridge, the man has clear talent. He puts that to perplexing use in Apocalypto, a feature that depends fully on his ability to visualise a story. Violence and butchery is his way of doing so. Whether that is effective or not is up in the air. It certainly makes for strong scenes and interesting cinematography but the meaning behind it plays fast and loose with the Mayan language and the warlike ambiguity Gibson tries to incorporate.
Hunting, killing and infighting, there is little reason found within Apocalypto. What Gibson tries to tell is the warring factions of a tribe, set mainly on the need for conflict. He is never deeper with that and it is hard to criticise him for it. He has not done so before and if he were to try it now, as he does somewhat throughout Apocalypto, it would alienate that core body of moviegoers. Braveheart did not work because it was accurate but because it was madness and entertaining. Hacksaw Ridge works because Americans have a patriotic twinge and Andrew Garfield is a fantastic performer. He can draw anyone to him, as he did with Spider-Man: No Way Home and Under the Silver Lake.
Gruesome and violent Apocalypto may be, that is not enough to keep iron-stomach audience members engaged. Interpreting the actions and reactions of the group of tribespeople is often simple. This is not because Gibson makes it so but because the action and reaction effect that is so frequently employed is easy to understand. Brutality bombards the viewer at every turn in Apocalypto, and that is the make-or-break moment offered so early into this feature. From there, it is no picnic for these characters. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and Zero Wolf (Raoul Max Trujillo) do well with the Mayan-language feature here. They bring out action and violence when needed. There is a primal urgency featured which will surely be inviting to some. That threat of peace in a personal life or way of living. Every action has a reaction, Gibson seems to say. Is he the right man to show that?
Probably, yes. His work has often proved controversial, from depictions of Christ to adaptations of Scottish Independence, it is no surprise that Apocalypto has its detractors also. It is clear to see why. Gibson’s direction is strong but what he wishes to show is undermined by the very selling point of Apocalypto. Entertainment paves a way up and over historical accuracy once again, but this time is different. Gibson is rootless and must rely on those historical pointers not just as a respectful guide, but one that lends itself to the creativity of the feature. It may have worked in Braveheart thanks to him starring in that but it does not work for a culture completely removed from his. His historical inaccuracies show a commercialised lack of understanding, rather than an ill-fitting man trying to crack out an Oscar-winning feature.