Mel Gibson’s latest movie is a dark, bloody, riveting action-adventure thriller. Actually “bloody” is the operative word; I can’t recall seeing a man getting his face chewed off by a jaguar before.
This undeniably has a certain entertainment value, at least for those with strong stomachs. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. However I didn’t feel very good about it afterward. I am not against violence in the movies in principle, but I feel that the use of violence needs to be justified by artistic necessity and by the importance of the story being told. The greater the work and the more important the story, the more violence I am willing to tolerate.
In this case I ended up feeling that this is basically a movie about cheap thrills. For that I would prefer a little less horror and gore.
The story takes place in Central America, sometime in the early sixteenth century. We first meet a tribe of hunters who live peacefully in the rainforest, killing large animals, playing practical jokes on each other, and telling ecological fables around the campfire. Once it is established that these are the good guys we see their village destroyed by a party of Mayan warriors who kill most of the men, rape the women and drag most of the surviving adults off to one of their cities, the women to be sold as slaves and the men to be sacrificed to the gods.
The rest of the movie follows the attempts of one of the hunters Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) to avoid being sacrificed, escape from his captors and return to the jungle to be reunited with his wife and son (who escaped the general slaughter.) So we basically end up with an chase story, though a good deal bloodier than most.
The movie tries to add gravitas by pretending to be about the destruction of a culture that in one form or another had dominated Central America for over two thousand years. It opens with a quotation from Will Durant about civilizations destroying themselves from within, and there are numerous attempts to raise the whole story to mythic significance.
The story of the destruction of an ancient civilization is compelling only if we accept that the civilization had some element of greatness. Historians describe the Mayans as an advanced culture with significant achievements in art and astronomy, including the New World’s only written language and a sophisticated calendar. However the movie shows us none of this; we only see cruelty and squalor. I won’t argue about whether the specific details shown are unfair; at this date no one can ever really be sure. No doubt Mr. Gibson can point to historical and archaeological evidence for his portrayal, but since he depicts the Mayan culture as something entirely evil he robs the story of any real pathos.
More to the point, the events of the movie for the most part have nothing to do with the destruction of the Mayan civilization. The Mayans were not destroyed because they kept slaves and sacrificed prisoners. They had been doing that all along, and while it probably didn’t help them, it didn’t seem to hurt them much either. The movie only touches on the real reasons for the Mayan’s destruction in two brief scenes: the one with the creepy oracle girl and the final ending sequence. Neither of these have much to do with the story that we have been watching.