Saturday, December 09, 2006

Not bad for a big budget action movie

I saw Apocalypto tonight. I’m not a big fan of big budget action movies, but as those things go it wasn’t bad. There was plenty of blood and action, some beautiful women and a few tits. The scenery was different and often striking, the costume and language interesting. A typical action movie. Mad Max on foot. A mostly mindless way to spend two and a half hours. Great art, however, it was not.

I’ll break from my usual practice of not giving away the plot because it is boilerplate big action movie. All is wonderful in the beginning. Bad things happen. A lot of people die bloody and spectacular deaths. The hero overcomes great obstacles and saves the girl. The end.

The opening scenes are based on Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer. Indians live happily in a forest paradise. The women all are beautiful. The men stand straight and tall. Sexual hijinks ensue. Everyone is laughing and having a good time. Then some bad dudes from the city, led by a guy who’s Nagual name translates as “The Lord Humongous,” leads his men on a rape and killing spree and hauls the survivors off to the big bad city to be sold as slaves or slaughtered. Along the way they meet a creepy little girl who foretells the rest of the movie in cryptic sentences that all come to pass. Then the Deus ex machina goes into overdrive, a convenient solar eclipse allows the hero to escape the obsidian knife that is about to cut out his heart. Then he runs at full sprint for at least 24 hours after several days of beatings and privations then getting speared through the chest. Along the way, he outruns a jaguar, jumps off a waterfall, struggles his way out of quicksand, takes another blow to the head and an arrow through the chest, all the while getting stronger and killing his pursuers in the best horror movie fashion. The best part was where he cracks a bad guy's skull and the blood sprays out in a fine mist. The audience got a few chuckles from that one. Will he escape the bad guys? Will he save the girl? It’s a cliffhanger. Yep, a cliffhanger. That’s what it is.

Then at the end, when he has no where left to hide and no more chance to escape, Cortez shows up and distracts the warriors that are about to kill our hero. I kid you not. Fucking Cortez! There were quite a few chuckles in the audience about that as well.

As I said above, not a bad action movie but not great art by a midnight mile. The only element of any interest whatsoever is the depiction of the Aztecs. They are portrayed as a sick and brutal people. They cut out people’s hearts, cut off their heads and toss their heads and bodies down the temple steps. There are quite a few skulls around and piles of bodies are a common site.I don’t have a problem with that. In real life, the Aztecs were a sick and brutal people, pathologically so, unrivaled in all of history on that score. The were as bad as the movie depicted them on a good day and usually a helluva lot worse. But there were also a lot of beautiful things about their culture and little or none of that was displayed. Too bad.

The movie opens with a quotation about how great civilizations are only defeated when they rot from within. I guess that was a comment on the Aztecs and Cortez’s arrival, but it could have something to do with the political situation in Australia. I don’t know. I don’t follow those things. Or maybe it’s a reference to the Jews. Were there Jews in Mesoamerica? Did they bring down the Aztecs from within? I guess if you believe the Mormons, it’s possible.

Anyway, character development is not handled well. The dialogue telegraphs that the main character is supposed to overcome his fear, but he never seems that afraid in the beginning so when he overcomes it in the end, it’s not much of a change, if at all.

The direction and cinematography are average for big budget blockbusters. There are a few nice shots of the jungle, the Aztec city is marginally interesting. That’s about it. There’s a lot of running through the forest, but if you want to see how that’s handled by a master, check out Rashomon.

It would be nice to see a genuinely good movie about the Aztecs. If Hollywood ever asks me, I’ll recommend adopting the short story The Night Face Up by Julio Cortâzar. Or if you are really interested, read This Tree Grows in Hell by Ptomely Thomkins. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read on any subject, fiction or non. Dr, Chuckling’s advice? Skip the movie. Read the books.

Update: Now that I'm reading reviews, I notice that every reviewer refers to the Mesoamericans depicted in the film as "Mayans." I don't know where this came from, presumably Gibson or his production company. I don't know if that's some kind of joke on the media, or what, but they are obviously based much more on the Aztecs than the Mayans. The temples, the ceremonies, and the bloody fact that the Spanish galleons arrive at the end leave no doubt.

Update II: Rex Reed in The NY Observer has a similar take, but phrases it much better.