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Touchstone Home Entertainment
Released: 5/22/2007

Movie: 4 out of 5
Video: 5 out of 5
Audio: 5 out of 5
Extras: 3 out of 5

Review by Mike Long, Posted 5/21/2007

When marketing a film, one typically wants to do everything that they can to draw people to the movie. So what do you do with a movie which has many elements which would presumably drive viewers away? What if your film had an inscrutable title, was in an unfamiliar foreign language, and came from a controversial director? I wouldn't know where to start with the marketing of such a film, but I can tell you that Mel Gibson's Apocalypto is much more than you think it would be and it's certainly not the art-house "National Geographic special" which some may assume that it is.

Apocalypto is set in Central America sometime around the early 16th century. We meet a group of tranquil native villagers, specifically a young hunter named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), who enjoys trapping game with his father, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead). He returns home from the hunt, glad to see his wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and son, Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Baez). The villagers celebrate the successful hunt and then settle in for the night.

The next morning, Jaguar Paw is surprised to find that marauders have entered the village and soon a slaughter begins. As the villagers are captured or killed by the invading natives, Jaguar Paw hides Seven and Turtles Run in a crevasse, but before he can join them, he is captured. Jaguar Paw and his brethren are then lead on a cross-country trek towards a huge Mayan city. Along the way, Jaguar Paw will witness and endure many hardships, but he realizes that all that he cares about is getting back to his family.

While watching Apocalypto, I kept thinking about Mel Gibson's motivations for making the movie. My guess is that following The Passion of the Christ, Gibson found himself torn between two worlds. His action-film background probably seemed miles away, as he was now seen as someone who made deadly serious and stoic films. Could he find a project that would allow him to straddle the line between these worlds?

Surprisingly, Apocalypto seems to fit the bill, as it falls into many categories at once. One the one hand, the film is very dramatic and serious. As with The Passion of the Christ, Gibson eschews English and has the actors perform the entire film in Mayan. The movie deals with very serious themes. Not only does it have genocide and cultural clashes, we also learn that the story deals with an important turning point in the history of western civilization. The movie was shot on location in Mexico, and Gibson is able to immerse us into this world.

But, Gibson (and co-writer/co-producer Farhad Safinia) have done something very clever here. Into the seemingly serious and important aura of Apocalypto, they have inserted a very familiar action film. In essence, Apocalypto is a archetypal Western crossed with, believe it or not, Rambo. We've certainly seen the main story before, where invaders swarm a village, kill or take the inhabitants, and then a hero must seek revenge. The story of Jaguar Paw is a classic heroic tale placed in a setting which few of us have ever seen before. The movie really becomes an action movie when Jaguar Paw's fear and desperation turns to anger when he seeks vengeance on his captors. In this sense, the movie doesn't pull any punches with its violence. The realism of the setting, the costumes, and the situations is further heightened by the fact that we see all of the stabbings, cuttings, and beheadings in full-color glory. I haven't seen 300 yet, but it's my understanding that the violence in that film is stylized. Here, Gibson has shot the grisly action in a realistic and unblinking fashion.

Another look at the film will find more of Gibson's personality revealed. It's no secret that Gibson has a great sense of humor and that he often brought a great deal of comedic energy to his roles. (And if you caught the fake "Making of Lethal Weapon 2 which aired on HBO in the 80s, then you know just how funny Gibson is.) However, following The Passion of the Christ, I, for one, had assumed that Mel's days of being funny were over. Apparently not. In the first act of Apocalypto, we get, not one, but two practical jokes which occur between the hunters. While the bulk of the film is dark and violent, there is definitely a streak of dark humor which runs through it. This not only shows that some of the old Mel is still there, but it lends a great deal of humanity to the characters.

There's no doubt about it, Apocalypto is an interesting film. Going in, all that I knew was that it was in Mayan and I was prepared to hate it. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the movie is able to combine a familiar story with a unique location to create a hybrid. The movie is reminiscent of Gibson's Braveheart in the way in which it entwines drama with action. The language and the brutality will no-doubt give many viewers pause, but Gibson is able to use great photography and strong performances from his actors to create a compelling movie. Apocalypto isn't the kind of movie that I would watch over-and-over again, but it's a unique and entertaining film which is certainly worth a look.

Apocalypto invades DVD courtesy of Touchstone Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. This is a very impressive DVD. The transfer looks fantastic, as the image is very sharp and clear. I noted no overt grain, nor were they any defects from the source material. The colors look amazing, as the movie is filled with a broad spectrum of colors, most notably in the Mayan city. The green of the forest look especially good. The image has real depth and the fact that Gibson looked for a deep jungle pays off. I noted some mild blurring in some scenes, but otherwise the video looks great. The audio on the DVD is even more impressive. The DVD contains both a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a DTS 5.1 track. I recently moved and I had been convinced that my new surround sound setup wasn't working. Well, this DVD helped to convince me otherwise. The dialogue and sound effects are clear and audible. But, it's the other effects which make this track rock. The stereo and subwoofer effects sound great and are quite abundant. The sound designers took full advantage of the jungle settings, as the sounds of animals come from the surround sound speakers from the first frame of the movie. The great audio really adds to the overall effect of the film. The subtitles are big and easy to read, but they are somewhat high on the screen.

The Apocalypto DVD contains only a few extras. We start with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from director/co-writer/co-producer Mel Gibson and co-writer/co-producer Farhad Safinia. The two speak at length about the locations and the actors. Gibson makes several comments about the camera equipment which gave him the freedom to shoot in the jungle. And yet, they say very little about the film's story or where their ideas came from. The same is true for "Becoming Mayan: Creating Apocalypto", as this 25-minute featurette focuses on the look of the film. We get an in-depth study on the film's locations, costumes, and make-up, with extensive interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, but there is no talk of the story. The final extra is a brief (36 seconds) DELETED SCENE.

Review Copyright 2007 by Mike Long