October 19, 2008

Seen Between Fingers -- Chris Kelly Sidesteps Mel Gibson's Apocalypto Boobytrap

In this regular feature, wimp and noted horror non-enthusiast Chris Kelly reports back with his first-impressions of memorable scary movies. We've been waiting for The Omen to arrive via Netflix; in the meantime, Chris casually mentioned to me that he'd rather die than watch Mel Gibson's orgiastic bloodbath Apocalypto. Like an evil genie, I couldn't help but make sure that within 24 hours, his worst nightmare came true...

You're probably as confused as I am about the choice to include Apocalypto in this series. No one involved in making this movie set out to create a horror film. None of the audience viewing it expected a horror film, and a horror film is not what they received. Though the finished product has an impressively high body count [editor's note: 114, to be exact], and though the gore is unflinchingly depicted, and though the deaths are increasingly creative, the fact remains that this is a pretty typical action movie.

It's also, in my opinion, a steaming pile. The fact that the first shot is of a tapir's wobbly ass isn't an accident: it's a warning.

I was asked to see this movie because it was assumed that I would be grossed out. I sure was. People meet some grisly fates. In fact, it almost seems as though Mel Gibson became bored at some point during the process and dreamed up new murders simply to keep himself amused. He loses interest after the third or fourth beheading. How about a panther? A fall from a great height? Poison darts? Bees? Spiked traps? It's in there. With just a little more faux-moralizing, this could have been a Saw prequel.

Yet the gut reaction of seeing a death feels muffled, because none of the characters strike me real people. Striving for archetypes, Mr. Gibson manages only to present us with paper cut-outs. The shrill mother-in-law, the unflinching hero, the heartless enemy, the prophetic toddler: each thinly scripted portrait carries about as much depth as a guest star on Full House. When they die (and most everyone does), it's almost a relief: one less melodramatic cliché to keep track of.

I'd say the movie is worth seeing for the production values. About a third of the way through we're treated to a breathtaking view of a Mayan city. To watch these scenes divested from the rest of the plot (and muted) would probably be best. Look at the people covered in white dust! The men painted blue! The women with crowns made from their own hair! The wildly costumed religious leaders! The crowds! The creativity and spectacle of it all nearly justify the $40 million that was apparently spent to execute this otherwise dull, artless slog of a misbegotten metaphor.

I'll save you the trouble: We start with the hero and his wife. They live in a peaceful village where life is simple and everyone laughs at jokes about balls. Then the army with En Vogue hair kills, rapes, and/or enslaves everyone. Once they get to the city, hit play. You'll get to see this dude, that guy, and OMG these ladies. As soon as the sacrifices are about to begin, you can just stop the DVD and put it back in the Netflix envelope. After that, pretty much everyone dies except for the aforementioned hero and his aforementioned wife (who rockets a baby out of her crotch in the most vigorous depiction of a birth perhaps ever).

So, that about sums up Apocalypto. It's historically inaccurate, overlong, completely implausible, and not scary. Don't bother.

Next week: The Omen, for real this time.

1 comment:

Tom said...

If we were running for president, this movie would be one of the fundamental differences in our campaign. I genuinely and unironically like this movie for the most part. I will totally concede when it comes to the En Vogue hair, though. And the rocket-crotch. Lady made giving birth while standing chin-deep in a well look easier than pulling a splinter. I seem to recall that your immediate reaction was, "Well, they say that a water birth is supposed to be easier..."

I'm disappointed that you didn't get more out of this. When I was a kid I didn't differentiate the old Tarzan movies from any of the monster movies I watched; any exotic deadly threat would do in a pinch. Apocalypto retrieves every horror standard from the history of jungle movies and delivers them in a series of sickening crunches. There's something about the sight of a head (several of them, actually) bouncing down those steep pyramid steps that makes me want to sing.