It can't be easy being Mel Gibson these days. Thanks to his recent tabloid troubles, it's now impossible to separate the private Mel Gibson from the public Mel Gibson. Maybe that's unfair, but so it goes when your drunken rants generate more press than your most latest movie.
And so it is to Gibson's great credit that 'Apocalypto,' on its own terms, manages to surmount the backlash against its writer/director/producer -- if just barely. I have to admit to bringing my own baggage to the movie, having resisted seeing it until I had to. But wipe away whatever your opinion you may have of Gibson himself, and the picture he has made has too many virtues to dismiss. Yes, it's overly violent and at times simplistic in its thematic excesses, but it's also undeniably gripping. In fact, in spite of myself, I was never not involved in the story Gibson was telling, even as I recoiled from his moral manipulation of historically suspect material.
As he did with 'Passion of the Christ,' Gibson again worked outside of the Hollywood system with 'Apocalypto,' developing the film on the dime of his own production company, Icon (the movie was ultimately picked up for theatrical distribution by Touchstone/Buena Vista). That allowed him to take real risks with material that's arguably already risky. Who else would fund a sizably-budgeted epic about civil war in a Mayan kingdom, starring no recognizable actors, and spoken entirely in the dialect of its native people? Gibson also lives up to his reputation as a reveler of bloodlust, never shying away from the visceral and the gruesome in 'Apocalypto,' even in this day and age when the news is littered with images of terrorist atrocities and the war in Iraq. Whether Gibson considers the current cultural climate when he makes a movie like 'Apocalypto' remains a mystery, but I guess after filming Christ being whipped and tortured for two hours, what else are you going to do for an encore?
In terms of storytelling, Gibson is on surer ground. Along with his co-writer Farhad Safinia, he frames his epic of rival warring Mayan tribes through the eyes of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood). Paw is a family man with identifiable dreams and morals, who sees his once-idyllic Mayan enclave torn apart when rivals (believing that sacrifice is needed to appease the gods) begin butchering his people. Gibson and Safinia will eventually take some pretty grand narrative leaps by film's end -- yet, like 'The Passion of the Christ' and to a lesser extent 'Braveheart,' Gibson sees the story not so much in historical terms as a grand polemic. His theme is ultimately a simple (if far from incontrovertible) one -- that moral decay, when left festering under faithlessness, can lead to war and, eventually, the decimation of humanity.
'Apocalypto' is certainly a polarizing film. His conservative bent on faith is obvious -- it's no stretch to say that Gibson has clearly filtered the downfall of a culture's spirituality through the eyes of Christian fundamentalism, and staged it as a populist entertainment. Yet, surprisingly, despite my own opposing beliefs, I was not offended by 'Apocalypto.' The movie works on enough levels that it succeeds as an entertaining, even enthralling epic. In terms of sheer command of his craft, Gibson's Best Director Oscar for 'Braveheart' was certainly not a fluke. 'Apocalypto' contains some breathtaking images and sequences, and he continues to show an extraordinary empathy for character. I'll never warm to Gibson's overall views on life nor his notions of belief (let alone his continued glee in reveling in the barbaric), but as he proves with 'Apocalypto,' just when you want to dismiss "Mad Mel" as last week's tabloid headline, he makes it impossible to write him off.
Buena Vista presents 'Apocalypto' in a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, and the film has a dark, natural and vivid look. Tech credits for the film also show it was shot in a variety of stocks, including 35mm, 16mm and HD video. The contrast is often obvious -- the movie's dream sequences are clearly 16mm, while much of the grisly combat footage exhibits plenty of motion blur common to video sources.
As such, the transfer is somewhat inconsistent, but still strong throughout. I was surprised that the blacks held up as well as the did considering the variety of source materials. Granted, the 35mm sequences are the strongest, with the best depth and detail (though grain is somewhat heavy), while shot-on-HD segments look flatter and softer, again partly due to the motion blur. The high-key contrast was a bit much for my taste, but may have been a concession to maintain consistency between the source material, as HD video can tend to look hotter than film. Colors are supple, (especially the rich greens and oranges), and there is no bleeding or smearing, although colors still look a tad dark overall. Finally, edge enhancement is not a problem, nor are there any noticeable compression artifacts.
'Apocalypto' is presented in two flavors of audio -- an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (48kHz/24-bit/6.9mbps) and Dolby Digital 5.1 (640kbps), both in the film's native Mayan. The PCM track is the definitely the way to go, as the dynamics are clearly inferior on the Dolby track. (Note that for whatever reason, the Mayan Dolby track is not listed on the disc's back packaging, but is accessible via the disc's "Setup" menu. Oddly, it is listed there as English Dolby Digital 5.1, but is actually Mayan.)
As a filmmaker, Mel Gibson understands nothing if not the value of impact, and 'Apocalypto' certainly does not hold back (it's no surprise that the film garnered two technical Oscar nominations for sound). 'Apocalypto' is almost always sonically alive with enveloping sound design, from the steady ambiance of the jungle to the effective percussive score by James Horner. Dynamics are excellent across-the-board, particularly low bass, which is as tight as a drum. Discrete effects are also nicely down for what is, essentially, an independent movie (albeit one with a healthy budget). Imaging is nice and just about seamless, with the overall force of the rears hefty. Since the movie isn't in my native tongue, it's hard to judge dialogue reproduction, but it certainly sounds well-balanced enough with the rest of the mix.
Disney has ported over to Blu-ray the identical trio of supplements found on the standard-def DVD release of 'Apocalypto.' It's not a robust set, but the quality is high. (Note that all of the video-based extras are presented in 16:9 widescreen and 480p/VC-1 video.)
Sure to generate the most interest is the screen-specific audio commentary with Mel Gibson and co-screenwriter/co-producer Farhad Safinia. Anyone expecting histrionics or Mel going tabloid-crazy will, of course, be sorely disappointed. The focus is solely on the film, and Gibson surprises with his lucidity and reserve. In fact, the track almost is almost whispered -- it's like eavesdropping on a private conversation. That's a good thing, as the two collaborators a fine job of covering the bases, with some fascinating insights on working with a cast that had little-to-no experience with filmmaking -- in fact, many of the Mayan performers had never even seen a movie before! The only disappointment is that Gibson doesn't really explore the film's themes in much detail, as this is mostly a production-oriented track. Otherwise, it's a good listen.
Next we have the 25-minute "Becoming Mayan: Creating 'Apocalypto'" featurette. It's nice and polished, including studio interviews with Gibson, and again he comes across as thoughtful and passionate about bringing a decidedly non-Hollywood story to the screen. Gibson makes a compelling case for the film's relevance to today's culture war-torn culture, and the on-set footage of the Mayan cast learning the ways of modern moviemaking is sometimes fascinating. If you aren't interested in the time commitment of listening to the entire audio commentary, Becoming Mayan' is a good alternative.
Finally, there is a very brief Deleted Scene, also with optional commentary from Gibson and Safinia. It's short and insignificant enough that it's a wonder that it was included at all.
Sadly, there is no theatrical trailer for 'Apocalypto' included.
Say what you want about Mel Gibson the man, but whatever personal demons he may be fighting, he remains quite an effective filmmaker. While it's certainly not for everyone and it definitely has its flaws, 'Apocalypto' is a gripping polemic that's sure to win appreciation if not admiration. As a Blu-ray release, this one's quite strong, especially given the film's psuedo-indie roots. The video is solid, the audio is truly a feast for the ears, and a slim but strong supplements package (anchored by a Gibson commentary track) rounds things out.