The most arresting thing about Apocalypto is not that it is a gore-filled splatter-fest, (which it has been construed as by some reviewers) but like another peculiar filmmaker’s vision with an adrenalin-fueled plot, the graphic-novel and classically inspired “300”, it is peculiarly memorable on its own terms. In an era of cookie-cutter productions based on un-funny TV shows, remakes of better originals, and sequels, and mechanical plots based on machine-gun fire, explosions and car-chases in various combinations… well, it’s damned refreshing to come across something profoundly different. Something different that isn’t an intellectual wank-fest passed off as an original vision, but an actual attempt to visit a very alien, visually striking culture and a not-often explored period of time. And doing it with unknown or amateur actors and in dialect with subtitles, on location… well, that argues a stubborn-minded personal vision on the part of Mel Gibson. The results might not be to everyone’s taste, but it is interestingly different from 90% of the rest of the DVDs out there.

Some of the most striking bits did remind me of other movies in the same genre: the opening sequence, a tapir-hunt through the jungle, by hunters on foot brought back the opening sequence of “Last of the Mohicans”, as did the leap through a forest waterfall. The elaborately detailed view, almost to the level of an anthropological study, reminded me of the same care taken in the portrayal Plains Indian life in “Dances With Wolves”. Every tiny detail of an existence very different from ours is there: crafts and customs, body scarification and ornamentation, of weapons and the way shelters and houses are constructed, how different classes of people ornamented and conducted themselves. I could not see they had been altered in any way to make them more palatable to 21st century aesthetics. The viewer is reminded that this is how our primitive ancestors lived for millennia: as hunters, in small villages always on the edge of being captured by a larger group, on the edge of want, captivity and sudden death.

The story rockets through a simple, uncomplicated arc, undistracted by any side developments. A small Mayan village is overrun by a war-party from a nearby city, and it’s adult inhabitants lashed together and dragged away. A handful of small children are left behind, among the bodies. The wife and small son of a young tribesman named Jaguar Paw, are hiding at the bottom of a dry well, or sinkhole without any way to climb out, since the rope they used has been cut loose. Jaguar Paw and the other captives are taken to an unnamed Mayan city, where the men are marked for sacrifice; their hearts cut out and offered to the gods. Spared at the very last moment by a convenient eclipse, Jaguar Paw and his fellows are offered a chance to run for their lives, pursued by the warriors who took them captive in the first place. And that’s basically the remainder of the movie: Jaguar Paw’s return to his village to rescue his wife and son, interspersed with their efforts to escape from the dry well. It is a story so simple that the subtitled conversation is not very obtrusive.

This DVD release contains only one additional scene not in the movie, included as an extra. Since Mel Gibson pretty much seems to have done it the way he wanted to the first time, it doesn’t seem like there was much omitted from the theatrical release, to be included again for this. There is one long feature, pretty briskly paced, reviewing the production and design, with some short actor interviews. I would have liked to have seen more about production design and more comparisons with actual Mayan relics and artifacts, just to get a better sense of what the designers had as a starting point. And more input from the actors, on what it was like to participate in one of the more unusual and original movie envisionings of the ancient world could have been usefully added. Overall, the extras on this DVD do not really add all that much to a powerful and unusual vision.

I do wonder what movie Mel Gibson will do next, but on this showing, you can be fairly sure that it will stand out among everything else on offer.

Sgt. Mom is a freelance writer who lives in San Antonio. Her website is at www.celiahayes.com .

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