August 5, 2020

Recommendation and Review: “Apocalypto”

apocalypto_02.jpgBack in the day, Hollywood used to occasionally make a movie about the early Christians. Central to those films was a sense that the old world, the Roman world, the world of the old gods, was on the verge of collapse, while the new world shaped by the Christian vision was being born.

Hollywood now makes apocalyptic movies with environmental judgment days dawning on us, appealing to us to unite around the United Nations or Al Gore’s gospel of scientifically-dictated politics to save the planet. When conservative evangelicals make movies, they say that apocalypse is happening as secularists take over the Christian west and remove the Christian moral code or as the dispensensational last days plan unfolds…right down to the video game. The rumblings of population and demographic apocalypse are beginning to be heard, but few of us can contemplate what happens when England becomes a Muslim country and the southwest United States declares its independence. No films of these scenarios yet. Meanwhile, the childless apocalypse of Children of Men isn’t showing anywhere, and the most successful evangelical film of the year is about turning around a football team.

Mel Gibson’s choice of the name Apocalypto tells us a lot of what he wants to reveal in this film. This is a movie about the death of one world and the birth of another, but the brilliance of the film is the multiple layers where this apocalypse exists. Apocalypto is a movie that succeeds brilliantly on every level. It is a movie that perfectly fulfills the possibility of a serious, “message” film also delivering edge-of-your-seat entertainment for the entire two hours. Because this story is told in the unknown world of the Mayan culture, it is strange and unexplored, yet remarkably familiar as well.

Get a ticket. Go. It’s powerful, prophetic and one heck of a ride.

Apocalypto is easily the best movie I’ve seen this year, and one of the best movies I’ve ever enjoyed. Yes, it is violent, and if the presence of violence discourages you from seeing it, it’s understandable. This isn’t a movie for children or for those who find themselves haunted by violent images, but for those who can see the violence in the context of the story, Apocalypto is a stunningly beautiful creation that far surpasses The Passion of the Christ as cinema and as art. It is a significant film that ought to generate hours of thoughtful discussion.

Other resources can summarize the plot of Apocalypto. I am more interested in the underlying theme of the death of one world and the birth of another. This is a film that uses images of birth and death prolifically. Jaguar Paw experiences the death of innocence, the death of his father, the death of friends, the death of his illusions and, literally, the death of his home, village and culture. Out of the moment of his own death, a new world is born. It is a film of death and resurrection, of hopeless despair and hopeful pursuit of what matters most to all of us.

His journey takes him into the heart of a dying world. It is a world of stunning, impressive accomplishments and conspicuous consumption, but it is also a world where self-justifying desperation gives birth to tribal violence and captivating religions that encourage and approve of atrocity. Jaguar Paw journeys through an adventure where arrogance, ecological disaster and unleashed depravity are bringing down a world that believes it can never end. It is a chilling and remarkably relevant vision that will stay with thoughtful film-goers. Unlike the clumsy anti-conservative Bushisms of V For Vendetta, Apocalypto takes a much grander view of what threatens a culture, going to the heart of the many factors that combine to bring a world to the brink of collapse, all the while thinking it can last for a thousand years.

It is a disturbing and frightening vision that goes far beyond severed heads and beating hearts. When we look into the eyes of those who sit atop the pyramids, listen to the rhetoric of sacrifice and catch a glimpse of the banality behind it all, it’s as provocative and affecting a vision as has ever been put on the screen. Say what you want about Mel Gibson, the man’s vision and art are simply brilliant. When I hear the critics sneer that Gibson is “troubled,” I wonder if they’ve considered how much great art comes from the complacent imaginations of the comfortable and untroubled?

When the high priest’s speech justifying human sacrifice began to sound like a chapter from “Your Best Life Now,” (“You are a people of destiny!”) I got the creeps.

It is a film dominated by birth as well. Jaguar Paw is born again as a man, a warrior and a survivor. He is reborn as a steward of creation and a lord of the forest. Out of another moment of impending disaster, a new child is born, as well as a new world. As Jaguar Paw and family go into the forest to begin again, they are the heart and soul of the new world for his own slaughtered people. Surrounded by death, demise and change, Jaguar Paw’s world is one that is born in hope with fresh visions and possibilities of the future.

In the center of the film, a tiny prophetess predicts that one world will die and another will be born in one man. As he escapes from the moment of his own death by the death and rebirth of the sun, Jaguar Paw becomes the carrier of this new world within himself. I cannot help but believe that this is one of the most powerful messages of the film: whatever cultural apocalypses occur, the hope of a new world exists in the individual, in the family and in the building of community, not empire. Empires come and go, but we remain, beginning again and again.

Christians will find much to discuss in this movie, from the sincere religious beliefs of the various characters to the suggestion that we live in the midst of the rhetoric and illusions of a dying empire. I found the movie deeply effecting and humane, with compelling story arcs working at every level.

Brilliant film-making. Don’t wait for Hollywood to give Gibson credit. This is easily the best film of the year.


  1. I thought it was pretty powerful but actually for some reason the Son of God coming to earth in “The Nativity” hit me deeper.

    For a movie that has sub-titles… I can’t believe how it held my attention. Worth seeing on the big screen.

    If anything I think the movie is good at reminding us about things we take for granted and that there is true evil that can fester in whole cultures and that there are individuals that have to bear the consequences. I kept thinking, “what would I do? How could I live through that?”, knowing that there have been countless people who have and still do.

    The last scene though could be used by a lot of evangelicals as a way to justify their political activity. I liked that part and it was powerful. But I think some evanglical leaders could see them on the boat coming in. But I may be cynical.

  2. Took me a minute to get your point about an evangelical reading of the last scene.

    I took it to mean one corrupt empire going, another one arriving.

  3. I liked V for Vendetta. As far as I am concerned it was a good political movie – but then I’m a tree hugging, UN loving chardonnay sipping liberal!

  4. I haven’t read criticisms of the movie vis-a-vis a Mayan perspective but I was very impressed with how Gibson created great sympathy for the villagers and in within the first minutes of the film. I had sort of expected Gibson to put some sort of positive spin on Conquest–bringing of the faith, or something like that–but he did not do that. (One imagines that his father would have.) Instead he tells a gripping story.