Reflecting on Apocalypto

Last Saturday, I went to see Mel Gibson’s new movie Apocalypto with Crystal.

I did a chunk of reading on Mesoamerican Indians in 2006, both on Aztecs and Mayans, so I’d been looking forward to seeing this movie for quite some time. Then I read Josh Gibbs’ review, which only increased my interest in this film.

But, having seen it, it’s taken me until today to be able to put my thoughts about the movie in order. Was Apocalypto a good movie? Uh, well, you see….

There are a couple of levels to the film. On one level, Gibson is trying to connect the Mayan civilization to our own. He opens the movie with a quote from historian Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” And the Mayan civilization was great.

There’s a stretch of the movie where the Mayans are hauling their captives into their city. Honestly, the trek just keeps going and going and going. But it works! Each scene shows a little more civilization. First, they are clearing trees. Next, they pass through the limestone mines on a well-constructed road. Then they pass through the agricultural suburbs of the city. Then they pass into the bustling marketplace. Then they pass into the temple complex at the center of the city. With each concentric circle, you feel more “civilization”.

But, at the same time, you feel the wrongness of the place. Something feels…off…somehow. Then you come to the temple complex, and you find the crowd of elegantly dressed people, dancing and singing and cheering, while, above them, men are being sacrificed. To be clear, this means that the man is bent backward over a stone while a priest cuts out his heart. Then his head is cut off and rolled down the steps of the pyramid, soon followed by his body. And the people cheer.

Something is fundamentally wrong with this people.

Yet, this level of the movie didn’t really work for me. It felt tacked on somehow, or maybe like a theme of the movie that hovers in the background. Because, really, Apocalypto isn’t a big movie.

It’s a small one.

Josh Gibbs put his finger on the core of this movie, when he wrote this: “From the point that Jag is taken away from his family, the dramatic question of the story becomes, “How will the hero rescue his family?â€? …. The story focuses on a man accomplishing something, not a man trying to learn something about life.”

One man. One wife. One family.

And now that family is in danger of being destroyed.

What is he prepared to do?

That’s what Apocalypto is really about. And, on this level, it is a deeply moving and stirring film.

From one perspective, so many films that are released these days are designed to fit into one of three categories: guy movies, chick flicks, and “family-friendly” movies. Chick flicks are all about love and relationships, guy movies are all about guns and explosions, and “family-friendly” movies are about cute puppies and stupid situations. As a result, movies that touch the emotions are usually aimed at women. All men want is that adrenaline rush. Or so goes conventional wisdom.

That makes classifying this movie difficult. Because, this is a guy movie but not in the “adrenaline-pumping” sense. Rather, this movie exalts proper manliness. Our hero, Jaguar Paw, is a true man. He loves his wife and son, and he is eagerly awaiting the birth of his second child. But how does he demonstrate this love? By grabbing a club and trying to beat their attackers to death. By risking everything to return to where they are stranded and rescue them. By leaping over tall waterfalls. By killing.

Killing for love.

The scene where the Mayans raid Jaguar Paw’s village is really harsh. I vividly remember one warrior grabbing a baby by the foot, pulling him away from his screaming mother, and hurling him off-screen somewhere. Women are being assaulted, dragged off-screen where they are being raped. When the captives are being dragged off, the few surviving children tag along behind, crying “Don’t leave us! Don’t leave us!” At camp the first night, one of the men is talking about his wife who had been raped and killed. She stopped screaming before they were done. Had she fought until the end? Would they meet again in the afterlife? These questions were haunting him.

And I found myself thinking about my own family. My wife, my children. And, in that moment, I realized that I am prepared to do what it takes to protect them. Shoot to kill? Stab for the heart? Absolutely.

Because I have no illusions about my place and time. I know full well that evil men walk this earth, and I know that they may come for me and mine. But I will stand ready to protect them.

As the captives were dragged across the river ford, being pulled from the few surviving children, I was also struck with another simple thought: this is what the world is like without Jesus. We were made for heaven, but we have turned this world into hell. “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.” (Ecclesiastes 4:1) But Jesus has come to establish His own kingdom, which is a kingdom of peace. “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

Look around. He’s obviously not done yet. So there’s more work to be done. So again the question: what am I prepared to do? It’s easy to look to the end and say, “I wish that this were all over.” Looking to the end gives hope, to be sure. But, as the old hymn says, “Must I be carried to the skies/on flowery beds of ease,/while others fought to win the prize,/and sailed through bloody seas?” For now, we are called to fight against “this present darkness”, which means suffering. But Jesus promises that our suffering and faithful labor will result in the victory of the kingdom of peace. Isn’t that something worth fighting for?

So, what did I think of Apocalypto? Hard to say, isn’t it?

This Saturday, I’ll be going to see it again with my brother, “Fritz”. I guess we’ll see what I think then.


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