A mythic action-adventure set 600 years ago against the turbulent end times of the once great Mayan civilization. When his idyllic existence is brutally disrupted by a violent invading force, a man is taken on a perilous journey to a world ruled by fear and oppression where a harrowing end awaits him. Through a twist of fate and spurred by the power of his love for his woman and his family he will make a desperate break to return home and to ultimately save his way of life.
For more about Apocalypto and the Apocalypto Blu-ray release, see the Apocalypto Blu-ray Review published by Greg Maltz on July 20, 2007 where this Blu-ray release scored 2.5 out of 5.
Once upon a time, the Mayans flourished. They invented elaborate art and architecture, contributed to mankind's advances in agriculture, math and astronomy and developed the only true written language native to the Americas. But watching Mel Gibson's Apocaylpto, we mainly learn that Mayans hunted and murdered each other in the most brutal ways imaginable.
The film opens with an eerie vocal while we read the words of historian/philosopher William Durant: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." Viewers hoping for a serious exposition on this thesis are soon disappointed. Apocalypto quickly degenerates into a celebration of pain, dismemberment and death that speaks to Gibson's vision, not Durant's.
Blu-ray and 1080p is the perfect format to capture the details of Mayan body art and jewelry which were beautifully portrayed in Apocalypto.
At one point, prisoners tied to a tree trunk are walking along a precipice. The last man in the line is near death and his legs give out, swinging him over the cliff's edge and jeopardizing all the men tied to the trunk. The captors can easily save their prisoners, but a cruel leader says, "Wait. Let's see what happens."
This voyeuristic perversion is the true thesis of the movie: let's put people in horrifying situations where their lives hang in the balance, and watch what happens in excruciating detail. That these people are Mayan seems almost irrelevant. Gibson's facial expressions and vocal inflections are stamped all over the unknown actors. In the end, the characters seem the same as in any Lethal Weapon movie--distinguished only by different costumes, sets, weapons and language (the film was in Mayan, with English subtitles).
The technical merits of Apocalypto outweigh its substance. The MPEG-4 AVC video codec with 1080P resolution and a screen-filling aspect ration of 1.85:1 is the perfect vehicle for capturing the tropical rainforest. The vegetation, lush and dense, unfolds in shades of green. Shapes and shadows, in vivid detail, mark the edges of leaves, stems, branches and trunks. It all becomes a tremendous tapestry where the Mayans weave in and out.
The visually striking tattoos, jewelry and skin markings on the actors also appear highly detailed. An adornment of turquoise beads against the dark skin of the Mayans shows lifelike contrast. Facial expressions and makeup effects, mostly of the bloodletting variety, are instantly communicated in HD with a rawness and anxious energy.
The motion, especially chase scenes in the forest, has a clarity I've rarely seen. Perhaps these video cues are aided by a virtual lack of film grain in some scenes. Normally I find a bit of grain warm and inviting in the picture, like an old friend who welcomes you to the show. But here, the complete absence of video noise in some areas makes for a stark, vivid viewing experience that proves unyielding as the action. The cinematography lent itself to this clinical imagery.
In the opening moments of Apocalypto, the audio, even more than the video, is what really brings the forest to life. Birds, insects, and the rustling of foliage surround us. The 24-bit, 48-kHz uncompressed PCM not only lends itself to palpable noises of the dense jungle, it also delivers the music with disarming resolution. The score varies from a symphony of drums to a single voice meandering in minor scale. Sometimes the voice seemed to whisper, "phaa" or "bhaa"--often to punctuate a quiet moment in the midst of either conflict or resolution. I found this vocal oddity to be unnerving.
Near the beginning of the film, listen to the clarity of the tapir's grunting and squealing as the hunters close in around it. The audio anchors the action, delivering a rush of adrenaline and realism that sets the heart pounding. We perceive audio on a more visceral level than the video. The changes in tonality within one sound show excellent microdynamics and across many tones, the macrodynamics are equally impressive. Uncompressed PCM continues to deliver lifelike sound beyond the dolby digital provided by standard definition DVDs.
A bit light on bonus features, Apocalypto includes a backstage pass. This supplement provides commentary by writer/director/producer/madman Mel Gibson and writer/co-producer Farhad Safinia. Also included is a deleted scene. It can be viewed with optional commentary from both principles as well.
As you may have gathered, my HDTV brethren, your mild-mannered reviewer is not a fan of Mel Gibson. I don't mind violence; but Mel's handling of the violence is disturbing. I appreciate the gangster carnage in Sopranos, the gunslinging swagger of Unforgiven and even the modern warfare blood and guts of Black Hawk Down. But where David Chase shows the unpredictability of violent eruption, where Eastwood shows the machismo of might makes right and where Scott shows the harsh reality of war, Gibson shows something else: unflinching inhumanity. Gibson has no redeeming quality there.
Watch the way the more gifted directors choose to frame the action and then watch Apocalypto. Not once does Gibson shy away from showing a scourging or bloodletting. If you follow the camera, you know what is coming. Why force the viewer to see every detail? And it is not simply the glee with which Gibson captures an injured or dying character. Mel amplifies the carnage with excess: a cracked skull rhythmically gushing blood; a spewing heart still beating after being ripped from the murdered victim's body.
Where a gifted director like Hitchcock would show blood swirling down a drain, Gibson celebrates it pouring out of the human body in unrelenting detail. Granted, Hitchcock's time was more than 40 years ago and now we are in a different time. But in following a man going over a waterfall, most directors would simply show the water without the man emerging from it. Or at most, the water turning a bit red. The audience gets the message that way. What does Gibson show? He gets an underwater camera and indulges in the man's skull cracking against rocks, with blood diffusing into the water.
Most disturbing about Gibson's films is not the technical focus on blood and guts, but the overarching focus on death over life. In his film prior to Apocalypto, Gibson cared nothing for the life or message of the most influential figure of the past 2000 years, but he cared a great deal about the death. Mel missed an opportunity to explore the teachings of love, peace and forgiveness central to the subject.
Similarly, in Apocalypto, any number of focal points in Mayan culture could have been meaningfully explored, while still yielding a violent adventure. Instead, we get a film that explored the very worst of that civilization, in the most superficial and sadistic way. At the end, Gibson tried to redeem himself. He failed. High marks for Blu-ray video and audio done right, but it's like the proverbial silk cap on a pig.