Apocalypto is a 2006 American epic adventure film directed and produced by Mel Gibson. It was written by Gibson and Farhad Safinia. Set in Peten, Guatemala, during the declining period of the Maya civilization, Apocalypto depicts the journey of a Mesoamerican tribesman who must escape human sacrifice and rescue his family after the capture and destruction of his village.
The film features a cast of Mayas, and some other people of Native American descent. As the dialogue is in the Yucatec Maya language, it is accompanied by English subtitles.
Although the film was a financial success, its depictions of indigenous cultures sparked controversy.
While hunting tapir in the Mesoamerican jungle, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), his father Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), and their fellow tribesmen encounter a procession of refugees fleeing warfare. The group's leader explains that their lands were ravaged, and asks for permission to pass through the jungle. When Jaguar Paw and his tribesmen return home, Flint Sky tells his son not to let the refugees' fear infect him.
The next morning, after Jaguar Paw wakes from a nightmare involving the refugee leader, he sees warriors entering the village and setting the huts on fire. The raiders, led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), attack and subdue the villagers. Jaguar Paw slips out with his pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernández) and his little son Turtle's Run (Carlos Emilio Báez), lowering them by vine into a deep vertical cave, tying the vine off so they could climb out later. Jaguar Paw kills a raider and returns to help the village. He is eventually subdued and a raider named Middle Eye (Gerardo Taracena), whom Jaguar Paw almost killed, slits his father Flint Sky's throat while he is forced to watch. Before the raiders leave with their prisoners, Snake Ink, one of the raider captains, notices Jaguar Paw staring toward the cave. Suspicious of the tied-off vine hanging into the cave, he cuts it, trapping Seven and Turtles Run. Jaguar Paw and the other captives are led off into the jungle.
A short distance from the village, they join another group of raiders who have captured the refugees Jaguar Paw met the day before. Later, Cocoa Leaf, a wounded captive tied to the same pole as Jaguar Paw, nearly tumbles off a cliff, but Jaguar Paw and the others pull him back up with incredible effort. Though Middle Eye, who is guarding them, is impressed by this show of brute power, he kills Cocoa Leaf by cutting him loose and pushing him off the cliff.
The raiding party advance toward a Mayan city, encountering razed forests and failed maize crops, along with villages decimated by plague. A little girl dying of plague prophesies that a solar eclipse and says that a man running with a jaguar will bring the raiders to those who will scratch out the earth and end their world. In the city's outskirts, where the prisoners come upon slaves working in lime quarries, the female captives are sold as slaves while the males are escorted to the top of a step pyramid. The high priest sacrifices several captives, including Jaguar Paw's friend Curl Nose (Amílcar Ramírez), by cutting out their beating hearts before beheading them.
When Jaguar Paw is about to be sacrificed, a solar eclipse occurs. The high priest looks at the emperor and the two share a knowing smile while the people below panic at the phenomenon. The priest declares the god Kukulkan is satisfied with the sacrifices. He asks Kukulkan to let light return to the world and the eclipse passes. The crowd cheers and the priest orders the remaining captives to be taken away and "disposed of".
Zero Wolf takes the captives to a ball court, where they are released in pairs and forced to run within the space, to offer target practice for his men. They are promised freedom if they reach the end of the length of the court. But Zero Wolf's son, Cut Rock (Ricardo Díaz Mendoza), is sent to the end of the court to "finish" any survivors. The raiders attack the runners with spears, arrows and large stones. The first pair to run are Jaguar Paw's last living friends, Smoke Frog and Blunted (Jonathan Brewer). Smoke Frog is struck by a heavy stone, and finished off by Cut Rock, while Blunted is impaled by a spear.
Next up are Jaguar Paw and the refugee leader. Although they almost make it, the refugee leader is shot through the head with an arrow. Jaguar Paw is shot in the waist with another arrow but breaks off the arrowhead. As Cut Rock approaches to finish Jaguar Paw, Blunted trips him, buying time for Jaguar Paw. Cut Rock gets up and kills Blunted, then turns to finish off Jaguar Paw. He slices through Cut Rock's neck with the broken-off arrowhead, pulls the arrow from his own back and escapes to the jungle.
As Cut Rock bleeds, Zero Wolf eases him into the next life. Jaguar Paw runs through a withered maize field and an open mass grave of sacrificial victims before finally reaching the jungle. The enraged Zero Wolf and eight of his men pursue the former prisoner into the jungle and toward Jaguar Paw's home. Eventually Jaguar Paw climbs a tree. The pursuers move past him, but a black jaguar in the tree goes after him. The raiders see Jaguar Paw and move to intercept him, but the jaguar kills one of the raiders. They gather to kill the jaguar and ponder this fulfillment of part of the girl's prophecy.
During the pursuit, the raider Drunkards Four is killed by a venomous snake. After running all night, Jaguar Paw is caught between a high waterfall and the raiders, and jumps into the water. Surviving the falls, he shouts that the raiders are now in his homelands.
After listening to Jaguar Paw's challenge, Zero Wolf says they must pursue him over the waterfall, but Snake Ink suggests climbing down around the side. Zero Wolf stabs Snake Ink for his impudence. Zero Wolf orders his men to jump down the falls with him. While most make it alive, one is killed. Swimming to shore, the remainder fall into pursuit again. Jaguar Paw escapes a pool of black quicksand and, camouflaged in black mud, resolves to become the hunter rather than the hunted. Protected by the mud, he disables some of his pursuers by throwing a bees' nest into their midst.
Jaguar Paw prepares poison darts, dipping them in poison from a tree toad. He kills a raider with a dart. Grabbing the raider's war club, Jaguar Paw attacks and kills Middle Eye. As heavy rain falls, Jaguar Paw rushes to save his family, still trapped in a flooding cave. Zero Wolf shoots him with an arrow and advances to finish him off. He blunders into Jaguar Paw's tapir-hunting trap set in the opening scene; he is impaled and killed.
Following Zero Wolf's death, the two remaining raiders chase Jaguar Paw out of the undergrowth to a beach. There they see what are conquistador ships anchored off the coast and strangely dressed men making their way ashore. Jaguar Paw flees. He returns to save his wife and son from the flooded pit. Seven has just given birth to a second son. As the reunited family look out from the forest toward the Spanish ships, Seven wonders if they should go to the men. Jaguar Paw says they should return to the forest in a new beginning.
Screenwriter and co-producer Farhad Safinia first met Mel Gibson while working as an assistant during the post-production of The Passion of the Christ. Eventually, Gibson and Safinia found time to discuss "their mutual love of movies and what excites them about moviemaking".
Gibson said they wanted to "shake up the stale action-adventure genre", which he felt was dominated by CGI, stock stories and shallow characters and to create a footchase that would "feel like a car chase that just keeps turning the screws."
Gibson and Safinia were also interested in portraying and exploring an ancient culture as it existed before the arrival of the Europeans. Considering both the Aztecs and the Maya, they eventually chose the Maya for their high sophistication and their eventual decline.
The two researched ancient Maya history, reading both creation and destruction myths, including sacred texts such as the Popul Vuh. In the audio commentary of the film's first DVD release, Safinia states that the old shaman's story (played by Espiridion Acosta Cache, a modern-day Maya storyteller) was modified from an authentic Mesoamerican tale. that was re-translated into by the young Maya professor Hilario Chi Canul, a professor of Maya, translated it into the Yucatec Maya language for the film. He also served as a dialogue coach during production. As they researched the script, Safinia and Gibson traveled to Guatemala, Costa Rica and the Yucatán peninsula to scout filming locations and visit Maya ruins.
Striving for a degree of historical accuracy, the filmmakers employed a consultant, Richard D. Hansen, a specialist in the Maya and assistant professor of archaeology at Idaho State University. As director of the Mirador Basin Project, he works to preserve a large swath of the Guatemalan rain forest and its Maya ruins. Gibson has said of Hansen's involvement: "Richard's enthusiasm for what he does is infectious. He was able to reassure us and make us feel secure that what we were writing had some authenticity as well as imagination."
Other scholars of Mesoamerican history criticized the film for what they said were numerous inaccuracies. See further coverage on the film's questionable historical accuracy and representation of the Maya below under "Controversy".
Gibson decided that all the dialogue would be in the Yucatec Maya language. Gibson explains: "I think hearing a different language allows the audience to completely suspend their own reality and get drawn into the world of the film. And more importantly, this also puts the emphasis on the cinematic visuals, which are a kind of universal language of the heart."
The production team consisted of a large group of make-up artists and costume designers who worked to recreate the Maya look for the large cast. Led by Aldo Signoretti, the make-up artists daily applied the required tattoos, scarification, and earlobe extensions to all of the on-screen actors. According to advisor Richard D. Hansen, the choices in body make-up were based on both artistic license and fact: "I spent hours and hours going through the pottery and the images looking for tattoos. The scarification and tattooing was all researched, the inlaid jade teeth are in there, the ear spools are in there. There is a little doohickey that comes down from the ear through the nose into the septum – that was entirely their artistic innovation." An example of attention to detail is the left arm tattoo of Seven, Jaguar Paw's wife, which is a horizontal band with two dots above – the Mayan symbol for the number seven.
Simon Atherton, an English armorer and weapon-maker who worked with Gibson on Braveheart, was hired to research and provide reconstructions of Maya weapons. Atherton also has a cameo as the cross-bearing Franciscan friar who appears on a Spanish ship at the end of the film.
Mel Gibson wanted Apocalypto to feature sets with buildings rather than relying on computer-generated images. Most of the step pyramids seen at the Maya city were models designed by Thomas E. Sanders. Sanders explained his approach: "We wanted to set up the Mayan world, but we were not trying to do a documentary. Visually, we wanted to go for what would have the most impact. Just as on Braveheart, you are treading the line of history and cinematography. Our job is to do a beautiful movie."
However, while many of the architectural details of Maya cities are correct, they are blended from different locations and eras, a decision Farhad Safinia said was made for aesthetic reasons. While Apocalypto is set during the post-classic period of Maya civilization, the central pyramid of the film comes from the classic period, which ended in A.D. 900. The temples are in the shape of those of Tikal in the central lowlands classic style but decorated with the Puuc style elements of the northwest Yucatan centuries later. Richard D. Hansen comments, "There was nothing in the post-classic period that would match the size and majesty of that pyramid in the film. But Gibson ... was trying to depict opulence, wealth, consumption of resources." The mural in the arched walkway combined elements from the Maya codices, the Bonampak murals (over 700 years earlier than the film's setting), and the San Bartolo murals (some 1500 years earlier than the film's setting).][
Gibson filmed Apocalypto mainly in Catemaco, San Andrés Tuxtla and Paso de Ovejas in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The waterfall scene was filmed at Salto de Eyipantla, located in San Andrés Tuxtla. Other filming by second-unit crews took place in El Petén, Guatemala. The film was originally slated for an August 4, 2006, release, but Touchstone Pictures delayed the release date to December 8, 2006, due to heavy rains and two hurricanes interfering with filming in Mexico. Principal photography ended in July 2006.
Apocalypto was shot on high-definition digital video, using the Panavision Genesis camera. During filming, Gibson and cinematographer Dean Semler employed the use of Spydercam, a suspended camera system allowing shooting from atop. This equipment was used in a scene in which Jaguar Paw leaps off a waterfall.
A number of animals are featured in Apocalypto****, including a Baird's tapir and a black jaguar. Animatronics or puppets were employed for the scenes injurious to animals.
The soundtrack to Apocalypto was composed by James Horner in his third collaboration with director Mel Gibson. The soundtrack lacks a traditional orchestral score and instead features a large array of exotic instruments and vocals by Pakistani singer Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
While Mel Gibson financed the film through his Icon Productions, Disney signed on to distribute Apocalypto for a fee in certain markets. The publicity for the film started with a December 2005 teaser trailer that was filmed before the start of principal photography and before Rudy Youngblood was cast as Jaguar Paw. As a joke, Gibson inserted a subliminal cameo of the bearded director in a plaid shirt with a cigarette hanging from his mouth posing next to a group of dust-covered Maya. A clean-shaven Gibson also filmed a Mayan-language segment for the introduction of the 2006 Academy Awards in which he declined to host the ceremony. On September 23, 2006, Gibson pre-screened the unfinished film to two predominantly Native American audiences in the US state of Oklahoma, at the Riverwind Casino in Goldsby, owned by the Chickasaw Nation, and at Cameron University in Lawton. He also did a pre-screening in Austin, Texas, on September 24 in conjunction with one of the film's stars, Rudy Youngblood. In Los Angeles, Gibson screened Apocalypto and participated in a Q&A session for Latin Business Association and for members of the Maya community. Due to an enthusiastic response from exhibitors, Disney opened the film on more than 2,500 screens in the United States.
According to Mel Gibson, the Mayan setting of Apocalypto is "merely the backdrop" for a more universal story of exploring "civilizations and what undermines them". The background to the events depicted is the collapse of the Maya civilization, which the filmmakers researched before writing. According to archaeologist Michael D. Coe,
"Maya civilization in the Central Area reached its full glory in the early eighth century, but it must have contained the seeds of its own destruction, for in the century and a half that followed, all its magnificent cities had fallen into decline and ultimately suffered abandonment. This was surely one of the most profound social and demographic catastrophes of all human history."
Coe lists "environmental collapse" as one of the leading causes of the fall of the great empire, alongside "endemic warfare", "overpopulation", and "drought". "There is mounting evidence for massive deforestation and erosion throughout the Central Area. The Maya apocalypse, for such it was, surely had ecological roots," explains Coe.
The corrosive forces of corruption are illustrated in specific scenes throughout the film. Excessive consumption can be seen in the extravagant lifestyle of the upper-class Maya, their vast wealth contrasted with the sickly, the extremely poor, and the enslaved. Environmental degradation is portrayed both in the exploitation of natural resources, such as the over-mining and farming of the land, but also through the treatment of people, families and entire tribes as resources to be harvested and sold to slavery. Political corruption is seen in the leaders' manipulation, the human sacrifice on a large scale, and the slave trade. The film shows slaves being forced to create the lime stucco cement that covered the temples, an act that some historians consider a major factor in the Maya decline. One calculation estimates that it would take five tons of jungle forestry to make one ton of quicklime. Historical consultant Richard D. Hansen explains, "I found one pyramid in El Mirador that would have required nearly 650 hectares (1,600 acres) of every single available tree just to cover one building with lime stucco... Epic construction was happening... creating devastation on a huge scale."
The filmmakers intended this depiction of the Maya collapse to have relevance for contemporary society. The problems "faced by the Maya are extraordinarily similar to those faced today by our own civilization," co-writer Safinia stated during production, "especially when it comes to widespread environmental degradation, excessive consumption and political corruption". Gibson has stated that the film is an attempt at illustrating the parallels between a great fallen empire of the past and the great empires of today, saying "People think that modern man is so enlightened, but we're susceptible to the same forces – and we are also capable of the same heroism and transcendence." The film serves as a cultural critique – in Hansen's words, a "social statement" – sending the message that it is never a mistake to question our own assumptions about morality. The main purpose of the movie has a lot to do with a quote from Will Durant at the very beginning of the movie "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within", the fighting between tribes, and the arrival of the Conquistadors aboard the ships at the end of the movie.
However, Gibson has also stated that he wanted the film to be hopeful rather than entirely negative. Gibson has defined the title as "a new beginning or an unveiling – a revelation"; he says "Everything has a beginning and an end, and all civilizations have operated like that". The Greek word (, apokaluptō) is in fact a verb meaning "I uncover", "disclose", or "reveal". Gibson has also said a theme of the film is the exploration of primal fears.
The film was released in the United States on December 8, 2006, to generally positive reviews from film critics, and holds a 65% rating on the aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes, based on 194 reviews. The sites consensus reads "Apocalypto is a brilliantly filmed, if mercilessly bloody, examination of a once great civilization." Richard Roeper and guest critic Aisha Tyler on the television show Ebert & Roeper gave it "two thumbs up" rating. Michael Medved gave Apocalypto four stars (out of four) calling the film "an adrenaline-drenched chase movie" and "a visceral visual experience."
The film was released less than six months after Gibson's 2006 DUI incident, where the director made antisemitic comments to police after being stopped on suspicion of drunk driving; the incident garnered Gibson much negative publicity and magnified concerns some had over alleged antisemitism in his previous film, The Passion of the Christ. Several key film critics alluded to the incident in their reviews of Apocalypto: In his positive review, The New York Times A. O. Scott commented: "say what you will about him – about his problem with booze or his problem with Jews – he is a serious filmmaker." The Boston Globe review came to a similar conclusion, noting that "Gibson may be a lunatic, but he's our lunatic, and while I wouldn't wish him behind the wheel of a car after happy hour or at a B'nai Brith function anytime, behind a camera is another matter." In a negative review, Salon.com noted "People are curious about this movie because of what might be called extra-textual reasons, because its director is an erratic and charismatic Hollywood figure who would have totally marginalized himself by now if he didn't possess a crude gift for crafting violent pop entertainment."
Apocalypto gained some passionate champions in the Hollywood community. Actor Robert Duvall called it "maybe the best movie I've seen in 25 years". Director Quentin Tarantino said, "I think it's a masterpiece. It was perhaps the best film of that year. I think it was the best artistic film of that year." Actor Edward James Olmos said, "I was totally caught off guard. It's arguably the best movie I've seen in years. I was blown away." In 2013, director Spike Lee put the film on his list of all-time essential films.
The film registered a wider number of viewers than Perfume and Rocky Balboa. It even displaced memorable Mexican premieres such as Titanic and Poseidon. According to polls performed by the newspaper Reforma, 80% of polled Mexicans labeled the film as "very good" or "good".
For his role as producer and director of the film, Mel Gibson was given the Trustee Award by the First Americans in the Arts organization. Gibson was also awarded the Latino Business Association's Chairman's Visionary Award for his work on Apocalypto on November 2, 2006, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, California. At the ceremony, Gibson said that the film was a "badge of honor for the Latino community." Gibson also stated that Apocalypto would help dismiss the notion that "history only began with Europeans".
William Booth of The Washington Post wrote that the film depicts the Maya as a "super-cruel, psycho-sadistic society on the skids, a ghoulscape engaged in widespread slavery, reckless sewage treatment and bad rave dancing, with a real lust for human blood." Gibson compared the savagery in the film to the Bush administration, telling British film magazine Hotdog, "The fear-mongering we depict in the film reminds me of President Bush and his guys." Just prior to its release, Apocalypto was criticized by activists in Guatemala, including Lucio Yaxon, who charged that the trailer depicts Maya as savages. In her review of the film, anthropologist Traci Ardren wrote that Apocalypto was biased because "no mention is made of the achievements in science and art, the profound spirituality and connection to agricultural cycles, or the engineering feats of Maya cities". Apocalypto also sparked a strong condemnation from art history professor Julia Guernsey, a Mesoamerican specialist, who said, "I think it's despicable. It's offensive to Maya people. It's offensive to those of us who try to teach cultural sensitivity and alternative world views that might not match our own 21st century Western ones but are nonetheless valid [...]. I think Mel Gibson is the worst thing that's happened to indigenous populations since the arrival of the Spanish. I say that in jest, but what is scary is that people will leave the movie thinking that because the characters were speaking Mayan there is an air of authenticity [...]".
Other writers felt that Gibson's film was more accurate about the Maya, since it depicts the era of decline and division that followed the civilization's peak and Classic Maya collapse. One Mexican reporter, Juan E. Pardinas, wrote that "this historical interpretation bears some resemblances with reality [...]. Mel Gibson's characters are more similar to the Mayas of the Bonampak's murals than the ones that appear in the Mexican school textbooks." "The first researchers tried to make a distinction between the 'peaceful' Maya and the 'brutal' cultures of central Mexico", David Stuart wrote in a 2003 article. "They even tried to say human sacrifice was rare among the Maya." But in carvings and mural paintings, Stuart said: "we have now found more and greater similarities between the Aztecs and Mayas."
Richard D. Hansen, who was a historical consultant on the film, stated that the impact the film will have on Maya archaeology will be beneficial: "It is a wonderful opportunity to focus world attention on the ancient Maya and to realize the role they played in world history." However, in an interview with the Washington Post, Hansen stated the film "give[s] the feeling they're a sadistic lot", and said, "I'm a little apprehensive about how the contemporary Maya will take it."
Apocalypto has been criticized for portraying a type of human sacrifice which was more typical of the Aztecs than of the Maya. Archaeologist Lisa Lucero said, "the classic Maya really didn't go in for mass sacrifice. That was the Aztecs." Anthropology professor Karl Taube argued that, "We know the Aztecs did that level of killing. Their accounts speak of 20,000." According to the film's technical advisor, the film was meant to describe the post-classic period of the Maya when fiercer influences like the Toltecs and Aztecs arrived. According to Hansen, "We know warfare was going on. The Postclassic center of Tulum is a walled city; these sites had to be in defensive positions. There was tremendous Aztec influence by this time. The Aztecs were clearly ruthless in their conquest and pursuit of sacrificial victims, a practice that spilled over into some of the Maya areas." Anthropology professor Stephen Houston made the criticism that sacrifice victims were more likely to be royalty and elites rather than common forest dwellers, as shown in Apocalypto. In contrast, Associate Professor William R. Fowler states that for major favors, worshippers "offered the gods human sacrifice, usually children, slaves, or prisoners of war". Anthropology professor Karl Taube criticized the film's apparent depiction of widespread slavery, saying, "We have no evidence of large numbers of slaves." Another disputed scene, when Jaguar Paw and the rest of captives are used as target practice, was acknowledged by the filmmakers to be invented as a plot device for igniting the chase sequence. Some anthropologists objected to the presence of a huge pit filled with rotting corpses near the fields of the Maya. Hansen states that this is "conjecture", saying that "all [Gibson was] trying to do there is express the horror of it".
The Washington Post reported that the famous Bonampak murals were digitally altered to show a warrior holding a dripping human heart, which is not present in the original.
According to the DVD commentary track by Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia, the ending of the film was meant to depict the first contact between the Spaniards and Mayas that took place in 1502 during the fourth voyage of Christopher Columbus.
The thematic meaning of the arrival of the Europeans is a subject of disagreement. Traci Ardren wrote that the Spanish arrivals were Christian missionaries and that the film had a "blatantly colonial message that the Mayas needed saving because they were 'rotten at the core'". According to Ardren, the Gibson film "replays, in glorious big-budget technicolor, an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one another long before the arrival of Europeans and thus they deserved, in fact they needed, rescue. This same idea was used for 500 years to justify the subjugation of Maya people". On the other hand, David van Biema questions whether the Spaniards are portrayed as saviors of the Mayas, since they are depicted ominously and Jaguar Paw decides to return to the woods. This view is supported by the reference of the Oracle Girl to those who would "Scratch out the earth. Scratch you out. And end your world." However, recalling the opening quote to the film ("A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within"), professors David Stuart and Stephen Houston have written the implication is that Postclassic Mayans had become so corrupt that they were "a civilization...that deserves to die."
In January 2007, it was reported that filmmaker Mel Gibson, his production company Icon Productions, and the film's distributor Buena Vista (Disney) were being sued by Mexican filmmaker Juan Mora Catlett, who claimed that Apocalypto used scenes and plotlines from his 1991 film Retorno a Aztlán. Later it was reported that the Mexican director did not intend to pursue anything legally, his only concern being that his own work be given due recognition.