If the hype for Apocalypto seemed to build for an extended period of time (indeed, much longer than normal) then it's probably due to the fact that it did. Missing its proposed release date of August 2006 by several months due to extended periods of rain in Mexico where it was filmed (not to mention an infamous drunken episode from the director), Apocalypto finally exploded onto cinema screens in January 2006. It limped off unnoticed a mere few weeks later, with screenings dramatically reduced so quickly that you would have been hard pressed to find more than one screening outside the biggest of cities.
Why? The film isn't so much awful as it is a failed epic. It contains all the elements required of an excellent film and with the digital production quality being beyond first class, it certainly raises the bar in that respect. But while all that effort was made to make the film visually stunning, an appreciation of high-class film production isn't enough to make the average moviegoer leave the cinema in awe of what they have just seen. The pre-release marketing promised something amazing and because it's Mel Gibson - the man who directed Braveheart, remember - we thought he might just be able to deliver. Alas, alack. No.
The opening scenes of a successful tapir hunt and then later an amusing comedy sketch involving a jungle remedy for an infertility problem is indeed promising enough. There is hope that if the film continues to build on this human foundation, it might just deliver on Mel's promise of a moving story - that of young tribal man Jaguar Paw (Youngblood), who's trying to save what remains of his freedom and family. Unfortunately these two scenes are where the character development ends and where the 'epic' begins. The rest of the film relies heavily on trying to push you to the edge of your seat with a great deal of barbaric violence and the bloodshed of human sacrifice; soon after it turns into little more than a chase movie with excessive gore. Even when Jaguar Paw finds himself faced by an enraged black jaguar, it does little more than elicit sympathy for a big kitty misinterpreted.
Many have simply tried to lambaste the film on the finer details such as the Mayan architecture being a mishmash of different times, styles and cultures and other similar historical and scientific inaccuracies. Yet even with the grace of artistic license, there is little to capture your attention or imagination, bar the costumes and make-up. The Academy Award nomination for Best Make-up is actually well deserved, especially in the city scenes nearer the end of the film, where the people are painted and the hair is big. Indeed the film is visually stunning, but like being in the presence of beautiful yet vapid people, the company soon wears thin and after a short time, you find your mind wandering to such subjects as how your time wasted here might best be spent cleaning the bathtub at home.
A redeeming feature of Apocalypto is the use of the spoken Mayan language throughout, requiring subtitles. This does lend some authenticity and atmosphere to Gibson's vision, but unfortunately can't carry the weight of something made to be so big, yet which falls so short of the mark. If you have a nice big television at home, then by all means rent the DVD when it is released and enjoy this film for what it is: a digital masterpiece. Just don't feel too bad if you find yourself thinking about bathroom hygiene halfway though. You are, after all, only human - something it seems mad Mel might have forgotten in his effort to entertain. Apocalypto loses its simple yet potentially compelling story to the complication of, dare it be said, money and ego.