WHEN I SAY Apocalypto is one of the goriest films I've ever seen, I say that not to warn you away from it, but to point out that its content is an effective reflection of its central concept. A lot has been said in the press about this film's theme, but what I saw was different. Sure, I definitely understand director Mel Gibson's intended US/Mesoamerican allegory—but far more striking is the theme that progress and civilization is nothing but a vast and sweeping human-cancer on the planet. It eats as we eat, and the end result is nothing but bones and scorched earth.
Set in the Mayan civilization's end times, this is the story of two very different tribes—one builds towers and sacrifices men atop them, while the other is content to live quietly in the jungle. And from the moment they meet, the bodies start stackin' up.
When a Mayan war party invades Jaguar Paw's (Rudy Youngblood) jungle village, he lowers his young son and pregnant wife into a cavern to hide them. Later, Jaguar Paw is captured, and spends the rest of the film trying to get back to his family before they starve to death or drown when the rains come. The action runs on a steady build, as things get increasingly violent en route to the film's skull-crushing conclusion. And goddamn, a lot of skulls are crushed. There are also a lot of hearts cut from bodies, head wounds that squirt blood like waterguns, and a scene where you're given the POV of a man being decapitated. The latter is pure vertigo; you see what he sees as his head falls from his body and bounces down the pyramid steps. Still, as pulpy as this gets, it's never done for shock value; it's all just backing up Gibson's cautionary thesis. But forget about themes and theses, and let this story take you. Because beyond symbolism, it's just that: a story, and a damn fine one.