Apocalypto: A Movie Review

HAPPY NEW YEAR to you, dear readers. I hope that all of you had a good holiday season. I also hope that you did not get stuck in the Denver airport, that you wound up 2006 in good style and ahead of the markets, and that you did not put on any weight that you cannot quickly take off. Like they say, you cannot be too rich or too thin.

And no, I am not going to start this article by quoting Clausewitz. Instead I will quote the late Will Durant (1885-1981), author, with his wife Ariel, of the great series The Story of Civilization, whose words form the opening thought, if not the theme, of the recently released movie Apocalypto:

“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”
Apocalypt The Movie

The mythic-adventure movie Apocalypto was produced and directed by Mel Gibson, shot on location in the jungles of Mexico, and released Dec. 8, 2006. Despite the timing of the release, this is not exactly a “Christmas” movie, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. There are no cute elves or funny skits about hapless homeowners falling off the roof while decorating the house, or even neglectful mothers leaving little boys home alone while the rest of the family boards the Boeing to fly off to ski at Telluride.

None of this cutesy-putesy stuff at all. Instead, Apocalypto offers the viewer a treasure trove of insight into the former Mayan civilization of Central America. Like I said, this is not a Christmas movie. The Mayans had their own calendar, you may know, and so for almost the entire movie the viewer cannot really tell “when” in time the events may be occurring. Everything is in “Mayan” time, which is not the time frame to which we modern worthies are accustomed. But in the next-to-last scene, you realize that the events of the movie must be taking place in the mid-1500s. In this remarkable scene, a trio of startled Mayan warriors stands on an empty beach and observes several small boats filled with Spanish explorers rowing ashore with their flags and crosses hanging over the gunwales. In this historical fiction of a movie, at least, two civilizations are about to make a very real form of first contact.

Normally, in a discussion like this, I would note the part about the Spanish explorers rowing ashore and then say something like, “But this gets ahead of the story.” Except that this is the whole point of the story, from the first scene of the movie that focuses on the primeval jungle life of the Central American rain forest, to the subsequent scenes of the elaborate cities and rituals of what is called the “post-classic” period of Mayan civilization. The essence and drama of the movie is that by the time frame of the Western 16th century, Mayan civilization had, to cite Durant, all but destroyed itself from within. History records that in 1517, the first Spanish explorers landed on the Yucatan Peninsula. And from that point forward, it took only a few thousand Spanish conquistadors, and the passage of not very much time, to finish the job of figuratively, if not literally, killing off the Mayan culture, if not most of the Mayans.

Blood and Guts

But I entitled this article a “movie review,” so first things first. Wow, this is one gory movie. Blood. And guts. Lots of blood. Lots of guts. This movie out-Sam Peckinpahs the late, great director Sam “Blood and Guts” Peckinpah (1925-1984). Mel Gibson has, of course, made many blood-and-guts movies during his career, to include Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ of recent vintage. These were, to be sure, great movies about great events, and blood and guts are an essential part of the stories. So you know going in, when you pay your money and buy a ticket to a Mel Gibson film, that there will probably be things that are not much fun to watch unless you are deep into gratuitous chainsaw massacres. (Point of order: I liked Mel Gibson in the 1982 Peter Weir classic, The Year of Living Dangerously. Great acting. Not a lot of blood, except when Mel Gibson gets beaned on the head by a rifle butt. Linda Hunt was terrific, even mystical, to the point of being hypnotic. And Sigourney Weaver was beautiful and just plain hot. She still is, in my book. But I digress.)

Before seeing Apocalypto, I read some reviews that said that this is a great movie, in no small measure due to the “realism” of the cinematography, which I think probably meant the reviewers appreciated the “artistic” way in which Mel Gibson portrayed the blood and guts within the context of the larger story. I also read some reviews that trashed the movie, in no small measure due to the exceptional amount of blood and guts. I can understand both editorial approaches. To be perfectly candid, there were a couple of scenes during the movie when I was just plain sensory-overloaded with blood and guts. I was ready to get up from my seat, leave the theater, and hope that nobody saw me go in or exit. The James Bond action movie Casino Royale was playing in the next theater. No harm, no foul.

But it was the whole story that captured my attention, so I sat there and watched Apocalypto. When I was not averting my eyes from the scenes of blood and guts, the film displayed incredible cinema work, sets, and scenery, from the mesmerizing jungle settings to the spellbinding images of a Mayan city whose skyline was dominated by the steep, four-sided pyramid towers. The costumes and makeup were simply astonishing. This oeuvre is an ornament to the filmmakers’ craft that allows the viewer to feel like a fly on the wall of another civilization, albeit a doomed one, watching these strange-yet-familiar human beings go about their daily chores and rituals. The script tells quite a tale, and the tale is notable because the dialogue is in a language called Yucatec Maya, helpfully translated with English subtitles.

The cast of the movie is superb. Interestingly, almost no one in the cast is a professional actor who has paid his or her acting dues the traditional way, by waiting on tables at restaurants along Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. According to the publicity releases for the movie, almost everyone who is part of the cast was recruited from areas near the location scenes in southern Mexico and Yucatan.

The main characters, however, do have some thespian credentials. The lead of the movie is Jaguar Paw, played by a Native-American actor named Rudy Youngblood. Jaguar Paw is a jungle-dwelling Mayan lad who is captured by a band of marauding Mayans who hail from the very big, very evil city. The leader of the merry marauders is Zero Wolf, a fierce Holcane warrior who runs the expedition that captures the previously noted jungle dwellers to take back and use as human sacrifices. Zero Wolf is played by U.S. actor Raoul Trujillo, whose previous film credits include the critically acclaimed films Black Robe and The New World. (Not for everybody, perhaps, but great movies as well. Black Robe is based on the classic work by Francis Parkman (1823-1893) The Jesuits in North America in the 17th Century. How’s that for the title of a screenplay?)

Immersed in a Different World

Between the visual scenes, the sounds, the script, and the worthy cast, all trace of the 21st century is absent from Apocalypto. The viewer is transported back in time to another place, another culture, and immersed in a different world. But how different is this other world, really? Despite the apparent primitiveness and differences of the Mayan world, certainly as compared with ours, Jaguar Paw and Zero Wolf are representatives of a complex society, each playing their respective roles assigned to them by fate.

Mayan civilization was extensive, both in terms of a large population and geographic extent. Mayan civilization ranged from southern Mexico to the Yucatan, and down into areas that are now parts of Guatemala and El Salvador. And as the movie makes clear, Mayan society had numerous specialized social roles incorporated within it. Boiled down to an anthropological essence, Mayan society was heterogeneous and filled with social inequality, so by definition, it was “complex.” The jungle-dwellers lived in small villages, from which they nimbly trekked across the rain forest eking out an existence in a manner little removed from that of a hunter-gatherer. But they traded with other villages, and hence had the rudiments of economic life and a primitive form of what Adam Smith would much later (in 1776, to be exact) call “the division of labor.”

The city-dwellers, on the other hand, were part of a far more elaborate social ladder. This urban Mayan hierarchy spanned its way from the lowest forms of human slavery, broken men working in the mines and pits, to a class of organized agricultural laborers, to a merchant class selling things such as corn, textiles, jade, and slaves. From these strata of traders, the societal structure rapidly narrowed to focus on a small number of the highest of high priests atop the mountain-like temples, carving the beating hearts out of sacrificial human beings and speaking directly to the gods.

The Mayan city in the movie, a historically accurate composite of 26 very real Mayan cities known to have existed in the region of what is now Guatemala, is resplendent eye candy to the student of the culture. And to the observant social chronicler, this Mayan metropolis is also teetering on the edge of chaos. Almost none of this is depicted in the spoken dialogue of the movie, but it is quite apparent in the costumes and acting.

According to archaeologist Dr. Richard Hansen, an adviser to Mel Gibson on the movie and a scientist who has spent a career investigating the Mayan ruins of Central America, the early Mayans focused their civilization on attempting to understand time and the relationship between mortals and the gods. Late classic Mayan civilization took this basic societal mission and from it created an entrenched ruling class, concerned with maintaining its lifestyle and privileges. Over time, the Mayan quest for learning and the resulting civilization that previously evolved began to incorporate ritualistic elements of savagery, in the form of expeditionary warfare to validate the power of what we might today label as “the state.” Thus, the basis of Mayan governance shifted to spectacles that could preoccupy, if not downright manipulate, the populace through some combination of awe, humiliation, and fear. (Greg’s Note: Reminds me of going through passport control at Miami International Airport.)

The Gods Must Be Angry

Apparently, the construction of the massive religious works (the steep, four-sided pyramids that you usually see in cruise ship ads today) were a Mayan form of what we might label as “big government” bureaucracy. In erecting these edifices, the Mayans wrecked the regional environment. According to Dr. Hansen, the lime alone that was required to construct the massive temples and other public and religious works necessitated that entire forests be cut down and burned in kilns. By the time of the 16th century period depicted in the movie, forests had been denuded, and firewood and other fuel was in short supply. Agriculture was failing due to climatic stresses, rain was not falling as it had in the past, and disease was making its way through the populace. (One great killer may have been smallpox, brought to the New World courtesy of the European visitors. Of course, we are also discussing a time that was several centuries before the development or understanding of germ theory. And the New World had its own gifts for the visitors, such as syphilis.)

Naturally, the Mayan leadership cadre placed the blame for these civilization-spanning problems squarely on the populace, whose lack of compliance and orderliness had apparently led to the disfavor of the deities. According to the priests, who understood such things, the gods must have been angry. The solution, according to the Mayan leadership, was the almost daily offering of human sacrifice to appease the angry gods. And if the angry gods were not appeased, then at least the bulk of the populace was kept in line by the sight of human remains being tossed down the 365 steps (interesting number, huh?) that lined each side of the steep pyramid temples.

So the movie Apocalypto is more than just an action-packed, head-bashing, blood-and-guts chase film. Sure, Zero Wolf and his gang of merry men raid the village where Jaguar Paw dwells. There is a bunch of killing and hacking, and Jaguar Paw and friends get dragged off to the big city, to be used as sacrifice bait. On the trek to the Mayan equivalent of Gotham City (or is it Las Vegas, what with all the tall temples where people pray for good fortune?), Jaguar Paw sees the horrible environmental devastation that concentrated amounts of Mayan civilization has created and, contemplatively, wonders at it all. What a guy, huh? Our hero is about to become another piece of human sushi when things happen that only happen in the movies, and he comes down off the sacrificial altar. Jaguar Paw then escapes to the jungle, to head back to his village and find his wife and young son. There is a big chase scene through the jungle, complete with horrific wild animal attacks, and arrows and spears whizzing past the camera lens. There are guys jumping off of waterfalls into the torrent below, and there are booby traps that could give even the clever and adaptive minds behind the Iraqi insurgency some new ideas.

The Collapse of Complex Societies

If you do not want to see the movie, you should at least read the book. And that book would be the pathbreaking 1988 work The Collapse of Complex Societies, by Joseph Tainter. No, I do not believe that The Collapse of Complex Societies actually formed the basis for Mel Gibson’s screenplay, as the previously noted The Jesuits in North America in the 17th Century formed the basis for Black Robe. But in Tainter’s remarkable study of the history of collapsed civilizations, including the Mayan, he listed four concepts that help to explain how and why societies collapse:

  1. Human societies are problem-solving organizations.
  2. Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance.
  3. Increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita.
  4. Investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

Tainter explains that the “number of challenges with which the universe can confront a society is, for practical purposes, infinite.” But complex societies seem to have a sociopolitical inertia that keeps on increasing their level of complexity in order to survive new challenges. In the early stages, societies in the ascendancy can afford to throw resources at their problems. But this cannot go on indefinitely. Or at least, no other society in history has even managed to pull it off over the long haul.

According to Tainter’s thesis, there comes a time when what he characterizes as “investments in additional complexity” produce fewer and fewer returns over time, until, eventually, the whole construct reaches a point of precarious stability due to diminishing return. That is, society cannot muster enough energy continuously to fuel its inherent complexity. Past that point, it is only a matter of time before the inevitable collapse occurs. When a new challenge comes along, whether it is exhaustion of a critical resource, climate stress, outside invasion, or some other set of circumstances, the overly complex society will be unable to muster the resources necessary to deal with the crisis. And at this point, society collapses.

If an overly complex society is fortunate, it will merely deconstruct itself and revert to a much simpler form. And if it is not fortunate, the representatives of an unsustainably complex society will encounter a few ships belonging to foreign explorers, anchored offshore and sending small boats toward the beach, just like in the movies. The rest, as they say, is history.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King

January 4, 2007