Apocalypto (2006)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernández, Jonathan Brewer
Extras: Commentary Track, Deleted Scene, Featurette

By now, one thing is sure. When Mel Gibson directs a film it is unlike anything you've seen before, and usually steeped in history of some sense. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect of his latest film, "Apocalypto" but I've heard great things about the movie, though I had been forewarned about the level of violence depicted in this movie. And yet, nothing could have prepared me for the mesmerizing adventure I was about to experience.

Deep in the jungle of Central America, a native Mayan tribe is going about their lives, hunting, celebrating, poking fun at each other, when their village is suddenly attacked and ravaged by a small army of men. While most of the men and women in the village are slaughtered by the marauders, a number of the villagers are taken prisoners and led through the jungle to some unknown destination. Among them is Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) a young warrior who has just left behind his pregnant wife and his young son, hidden away in a dried up well. Despite the odds that face him he is determined to return and rescue them from the well before the rains begin to fall, inevitably drowning them in their icy wash.

The prisoners are led to a large Mayan city where the ruler has ordered human sacrifices. The people of his kingdom are troubled by pestilence and disease, the lands are dried up and crops are dying from poison in the earth. Seeing it as a sign of the gods, these bloody human sacrifices are designed to placate the gods, to quench their thirst for blood and to make them favorable once again. One by one, just like hundreds in the hours before them, the prisoners are led to the altar to face their death at the hands of a high priest. But Jaguar Paw is not yet ready to go.

"Apocalypto" is an awe-inspiring film for a number of reasons. While a movie about the tribal culture of jungle natives may fall apart at the hands of another director, Mel Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia turn the material into an adrenaline-fuelled action adventure that leaves viewers absolutely breathless. Once the story gets into full gear, there is not a single breather as the plot unfolds and we are pulled into the violent, bloody world of this ancient culture.
The movie's cinematography also adds tremendously to the film's appeal and effect. The lush rain forest setting is vivid and colorful, but also serves as a set piece for the story itself with its dangers and unique traits. By contrast the Mayan city has the quality of a Roman forum with thousands of people crowding too little space, slaves being sold off on every corner, and augurs predicting the future. The highlight of the city sequence is of course the display of the majestic pyramid temples, especially when the camera takes us atop, giving us a lofty view across the orgiastic, blood-thirsty masses awaiting the next head to roll.

I knew a few things about Mayan culture and the blood it was trenched in but quite frankly seeing it in this picture puts things in a completely new perspective. While the film is brutally gory and violent and not for the faint-hearted, we see how it is coming out of the culture itself, the traditions, the life of the people surviving the deadly jungle. Death is part of their lives that can lurk around every corner in the form of a poisonous snake, insect, toad or jaguar. But death also serves them as the people are hunting the forests with their primitive weapons, using their skills and knowledge of the jungle to trap, maim and kill their prey. Their entire lives consist of a series of violent acts allowing them to survive. With that in mind, it is not so surprising that in settlements where thousands of people with this sort of background rub shoulders have extremely violent and bloody rituals as part of their everyday lives. Of course, it is a bit hard to swallow for viewers at first, but as evidenced over and over again even in our modern cultures, there are plenty of people with unchecked animals inside of them around us still.

To further add to the film's mystique, it has been filmed entirely in the Mayan language with a cast that consists predominantly of Mayan natives. In fact, many of the speaking roles in the film even feature talents that have never acted before. Despite being a detriment however, it gives the film incredible authenticity and pulls viewers into the story even more.

"Apocalypto" comes to DVD as direct transfer from the digital master and as a result there are no signs of defects or blemishes, as the movie never went through the film process. The image is spectacularly rich and colorful, bringing to life the jungle and the people. The level of detail is great throughout letting us examine every leaf and every bit of texture in tree barks. Black levels are solid, creating an image that has great visual depth and adds richness to the colors, allowing the images to leap off the screen. It is an impressive transfer throughout that plays up DVD's capabilities to the fullest of their potential.

The DVD also goes way out with its audio options, delivering a spectacular 5.1 channel DTS track to boot with, as well as a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The sound track of the film consists of a great music track featuring many tribal themes to underscore the tone and nature of the movie. The music brilliantly complements the images and defines much of the emotional tone of the movie. Surround usage is very good and very aggressive at times, while at others using the discrete surrounds superbly to render the ambient noises of the jungle. Dialogue is very well integrated and is never drowned out, even when the scenes explode on the screen.

The release contains number of great extras, such as a commentary track by writer/director/producer Mel Gibson and co-writer/co-producer Farhad Safinia. There isn't too much I can say about this track other than, listen to it! There is so much information in this track that it will not only extend your understanding and appreciation for the film itself, but for the Mayan culture in general.

Also included on the disc is a deleted scene with commentary and a featurette about the making of the movie. These supplements are also informative and give you good look at the production ad some of the effects from the film.

"Impressive" and "mesmerizing" are the words that come to mind when I think about "Apocalypto." The film is not only a movie, it is an experience, and I am exceedingly thankful that I have had the privilege of experiencing this film. I always liked Mel Gibson as an actor but with every new movie I begin to appreciate him as a director even more. Like Clint Eastwood, I think Mel Gibson will celebrate some of his greatest successes behind the camera in years to come. It is hard not to appreciate the risks he must have taken to make this unconventional film and to introduce us to one of the most significant, yet almost forgotten, cultures we have seen on Earth. That alone should be reason enough for anyone to give this movie a try and I'm sure you will be just as impressed as I was.