Mel’s masterpiece? Certainly, Apocalypto is leaps and bounds ahead of anything else he’s tackled as director (and, it should be stressed, in contrast to many an actor-director, Gibbo has genuine talent to spare in the second-career department). Part of that may be because, where there’s overstatement – and this is Mel; there’s bound to be – it’s almost entirely in the service of the telling of “Almost”’s attempt to live to save his wife and child(ren). This is a 140-minute movie where the real action – a protracted chase – doesn’t begin until the 80-minute mark, but there’s no fat. And no cheese either, mercifully. There’s also precious little fidelity to history, but then, Mel has self-confessedly past form in that department.
One has to wonder, though, was Gibson trying to take an axe to Mayan culture? Or rather, received “wisdom” on Mayan culture. Rather than setting his story in the more directly bloodthirsty Aztec milieu (but who knows how accurate that depiction is), Mel and co-writer Farhad Safinia opt for their altogether better-regarded Mesoamerican cousins (their recent The Professor and the Madman, Safinia’s directing debut, devolved into acrimony with co-producer Voltage Pictures). Their cited reason being that, for all the Mayan advancement, there was a “brutal undercurrent of ritual savagery” … except we see none of the advancement, so they may as well be the Aztecs appropriating abandoned pyramids for sacrificial purposes (in the savvy stakes, if isn’t the slaughter-happy “urban” tribe, it’s the contrastingly peaceful but decidedly non-tech jungle dwellers).
According to the official history/mystery, the Mayan cities were abandoned around the 8-9th centuries, for reasons unknown, and the civilisation had collapsed by AD 900. “Independent” Mayan civilisation lasted – again, officially – until 1697, when the Spanish conquered their last independent city state. Which would be just shy of “mudflood” … Some “scholars” contest that there was no vanishing of the civilisation at all. There are theories of invasion, debilitation by diseases, drought/ecological collapse and trade drying up, all of which attest to no one really knowing. At least, in the scholarly firmament.
The Ra Material posits that the Mayan civilisation was contacted by “others from our density” (“light beings” who are members of the Confederation of Planets in the Service of the Infinite Creator). Just as Ra contacted the Egyptians and built the Great Pyramid. Albeit, it appears the latter is a distortion of information – either through the channelling process, or because Ra had his/their reasons for being liberal with the truth – and the Great Pyramid was actually a Dark Forces construct. Nevertheless, to the extent this channelled information is imperfect, it does lay seeds for another source.
As far as the higher-density visitors are concerned, it seems “the so-called ‘lost cities’ were their attempts to contribute to the Law of One”. Ra attested to issues spreading the message in Egypt (“We found that the technology was reserved largely for those with the effectual mind/body distortion of power”) while the group in South America persevered, returning after their initial contact “approximately 3,500 years later in order to attempt to aid the South American mind/body/spirit social complex once again”.
However, “the pyramids of those so-called cities were not to be used in the appropriate fashion”. During the first visit, the entities “began to construct a series of underground and hidden cities including pyramid structures” and over the next 3,500 years “these plans became, though somewhat distorted, in a state of near-completion in many aspects”. The second visit was “to correct in person the distortions which had occurred in their plans”. Unfortunately, “the teachings were, for the most part, greatly and grossly perverted to the extent in later times of actual human sacrifice rather than healing of humans”.
One has to go back a bit to find any consistent positives in the general area, way back before the Confederation contact, about 25,000 years ago. Ra suggest that, at this time “there grew to be a great vibratory distortion towards love. These entities were harvestable at the end of the second major cycle”. They were an isolated group who had “achieved life spans stretching upwards towards the nine-hundred-year life span appropriate to this density”.
If the Law of One account seems awash with failures, Corey Goode suggests at least some of those attributed Mayan status achieved unqualified success in advancement. As with Ra, Corey’s testimony is subject to error and/or intentional obfuscation, but it seems his account of a Mayan breakaway group is basically accurate. They “started out in Mesoamerica, and thanks to a successful ET contact, they were able to migrate off-planet”. These Mayans possessed “unique technology that appears to be based on the use of stone and consciousness”. He also has it that they were not indigenous (“They were here for a long period of time as cosmic refugees… I was told there was like 40 million of them”).
Corey stated that they are in 4-5D now and interact with the SSP (Secret Space Programme) Alliance group. “They still have some bases down in South America” but “They are mostly off planet, they have colonies in the Pleiades these places are basically like paradises, they have been taking these people and sometimes other ET groups, damaged corporeal and damaged souls to these locations” where they treat them with “very high vibratory technologies that are very wonderful that helps people heal from trauma”. The Mayan priest caste were at the core of the civilisation’s development, albeit rather cagey with their wisdom: “the priest caste were also scientists. And they guarded the scientific knowledge from the kings and below… they guarded the information”.
The modern-era idea that the Maya left the planet has been circulating at least since von Däniken posited ancient-alien contact, and the mystery of their disappearance is rather begging for such an explanation (that, or they abruptly moved en masse to a higher plane). Mel cocks a snoot at any such indulgence, of course. He much prefers meat-and-potatoes conspiracies he can touch, or pummel to a bloody pulp. The Jews killed Christ? Did they ever, and then some, over a protracted, sadistic, gory couple of hours for all your guilty Catholic pleasure. William Wallace, despite being – per Mel’s admission – not such a nice guy, stood up to the lousy, evil English? You bet he did, right up until they hanged, drew and quartered him. And as for Hacksaw Ridge, will you check out that battlefield carnage, as our brave pacifist saves the vigorously mutilated. Mel’s nothing if not all about the viscera.
Thus, even Apocalypto’s opening, introducing us to our hero’s at-one-with-nature tribe, emphasises the world’s predatory nature; we join a tapir hunt and the menfolk via some practical-joker Mel Three Stooges humour at the expense of Blunted (Jonathan Brewer) and his lack of mettle in fathering any children; eating tapir testicles and rubbing peppery soanzo leaves on his privates are all in a day’s work for japesters Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead). As brother and father to the credulous young man, you might have hoped they’d show a modicum more kindness, but the podgy relative receives merciless ridicule.
This is actually shrewd short hand; you get to know all you need to through lively banter and antics. There’s also the introduction of a key running theme when they come across some displaced tribe folk (“Our lands were ravaged. We seek a new beginning…”) Jaguar Paw is near premonitory, but his concerns are allayed by dad (“Fear is a sickness. It will crawl into the soul of anyone who engages with it”). So… is it Jaguar Paw’s fear that brings the Raiders down on the tribe? One could argue they were coming anyway.
Yet the narrative is all about Jaguar Paw reaching the point where he quits running and overcomes his fear, restating his father’s announcement as a citizen of the jungle by taking the fight to the Raiders. He martials the jungle against them: killer jaguar, killer snake, killer frog, killer bees. And most cathartically, a killer animal trap that takes out the movie’s unstoppable force Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), a not dissimilarly imposing killing machine to Stephen Lang in Avatar. True, he’s less loathsome than weirdy-goon Middle Eye (Gerardo Taracena), who “affectionately” calls Jaguar Paw “Almost”, but he’s majorly more formidable. He also gets to homage Dustin Hoffman when he narrowly avoids a felled tree with “I am walking here!”
If one wishes to interrogate Apocalypto’s philosophy, what it is that brings the shadow of destruction down on the tribe, one might be inclined to assume race complicity (the depravity of the Raiders group also blights the jungle tribe), unless we’ve only been privy to the positives in Jaguar Paw’s tribe. After all, the Seth Material pulls no punches when it comes to self-accountability. Seth has it that “You form you own reality. If a rapist comes to your door, then your own fears and aggression have brought him there… there are no accidents” and “when you kill another man, basically you will end up killing yourself”. Further, “There is never any justification for violence. There is no justification for hatred. There is no justification for murder. Those who indulge in violence for whatever reason are themselves changed, and the purity of their purpose adulterated”. None of which would be music to Mel’s ears, as the movie is predicated on revenge and righteous retribution for wrongs inflicted.
Gibson and Safinia maximise the grotesque and grisly in the Raiders’ lime-blown city; it’s the ultimate urban nightmare, a horror show replete with rivers of blood, rotting corpses and heads on poles. This is undilutedly a demonic, barbaric society of closely controlled and ordered cruelty (the title quote “A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within” could, in a macrocosmic sense, be applied to the kernel of the Seth Material quotes above, but also to the essential apocalypse of Mad Max). Mel dispenses with decline and fall, opting instead for rock bottom, much like Mad Max 2, but the materialist disarray that ensues from environmental concerns there finds its response here in appeasement of the gods (the crops keep failing, all very The Wicker Man).
Once Jaguar Paw is on the run, Gibson even finds room for a subplot, cutting back to the tribulations of Seven (Dalia Hernández) and her son in the hidey pit he lowered them into at the outset; the piled-on threats there ought to be absurd, but Mel makes them work, pulling off the silliest conceit – Seven giving birth as the cave floods, with her son on her shoulders – with remarkable assuredness and flair. As for the beach scene, a conquistadors ex machina that distracts the two remaining Raiders and allows Jaguar Paw and his family an escape, it would be very difficult to construe this as a positive development, since we know what the conquistadors got up to; violence breeds violence, perhaps, and fear breeds fear, which Jaguar Paw implicitly rejects.
Omen Girl: You fear me? So you should. All you who are vile. Would you like to know how you will die? The sacred time is near. Beware the blackness of day. Beware the man who brings the jaguar. Behold him reborn from mud and earth. For the one he takes you to will cancel the sky, and scratch out the earth. Scratch you out. And end your world. He’s with us now. Day will be like night. And the man jaguar will lead you to your end.
Many of the conversations surrounding Apocalypto, if they aren’t recognising it prima facie as a bravura piece of filmmaking, are simply intent on compounding the narrative of racist Mel and his racist tracts. That, and its historical egregiousness. The smallpox omen girl has been called out in this regard; where would the smallpox have come from, if the Spanish brought it and yet they didn’t arrive until the end of the movie? One would have to examine the history of disease narratives to tackle this, not just in terms of the causes of disease (that is, prior to Pasteurian revisionism) but also how accurate the record is, in terms of purported plagues and epidemics. Better to focus less on the pox-ness of the illness than the girl’s presence as a harbinger of Mel’s main theme.
Professor of Mesoamerican art and culture (so versed in making things up) Julia Guernsey declared “I think Mel Gibson is the worst thing that’s happened to indigenous populations since the arrival of the Spanish”. Which makes a great headline. Apocalypto is very much in the line of The Passion of the Christ, marbling events with signs and portents, prophecies and acts of God (Jaguar Paw only escapes a beheading thanks to an eclipse, albeit it seems, per the commentary track, that the Raiders’ priests are still supposed to be au fait with astrology and knew they were going to decide to belay further sacrifices). The peoples are clearly at a point where whatever knowledge they had has given way to superstition (be it the plague that infests crops or the scourge of sickness that affects individuals) and regress.
Mostly, though, the movie is one that takes an unlikely setting, complete with subtitles, and delivers a foot chase that feels like a car chase “that just keeps turning the screws”, to the tune of a bona-fide hit (if nothing on the scale of Gibson’s previous two directorial efforts). Whether his more public controversies had a limiting effect on box office, those of racism charges in respect of The Passion of the Christ being compounded by Mel’s drink-driving debacle five months before Apocalypto’s release, it isn’t hard to see that it impacted critics validations (only 65% fresh on RT is ridiculous). It even mustered three (technical, so safe) Oscar nominations. Gibson may not have an inside track on secret or stolen history, but his movie ones are likely no less valid than the official accounts. And they’re the ones that need calling out, not Mad Mel.