By Christopher Cudworth
There are certain movies that are watchable again and again. One of my guilty cinematic pleasures is the movie Apocalypto. It is directed by Mel Gibson, whose Passion of the Christ and Braveheart films are some of the most violent movies on record, and Apocalypto is no exception to the rule that gore makes for entertainment.
The plot is simple and fairly stolen from a movie I also liked as a kid. That was Naked Prey starring Cornell Wilde. Basically the hero of both movies uses their wits and will to elude hunters determined to kill them.
In Apocalypto, the pursuers are killed off one by one as the alternately blessed and cursed hero runs for his life. His hunters, both bloodthirsty and dismissive of the hero’s culture and individuality, regard him as something just above an animal.
Which makes it all the more symbolic when the runaway hero emerges from the jungle being pursued by a black panther. His speed enables him to stay ahead of the cat, then he cuts in front of one of the men trying to kill him and the cat opts to strike the man down and gnaw on his head. It’s not the best cat gnaw you’ve ever seen, but you pretty much get the picture.
The hunters impale the cat but can’t save their compatriot. They debate the vision and merits of a prophet among them who claims the death is a “bad omen.” You think?
One by one the hunters die at the hands of the runaway whose goal is to get back to his former village where his wife sits at the base of a cave in the ground. The rest of his people were killed or taken captive by the warring Central American tribe that used slaves as sacrifices to the sun god. They cut out the heart of their victims, lop off the heads and toss them down the stairs of the giant altar where men with nets play games by catching the tumbling heads in nets.
So you can see why the hero really wants to run. He was himself laid out for sacrifice when the sun goes into eclipse (a little fast, mind you, but it’s the movies) which results in the “release” of captives in a game where the hunters force them to run a gauntlet of arrows, stones and spears before being whacked upside the head by the “finisher” before they can escape complete or incomplete into the jungle.
But our hero is faster than his pursuers. We see that from the start when he sprints in zigs and zags down the length of the arena where his first two companions are struck by stones and spears and slaughtered.
The vengeance is wonderful. Perhaps it’s a Guy Movie in that respect. Competition is fierce when it’s your ass on the line. As the young warrior rips through the jungle he resembles a world class sprinter or a wide receiver in full flight. His pursuers try to take him down, but he’s too fast, too smart and too determined to save his life and his wife.
The whole thing is an allegory for life in general. There are elements of faith and prophecy communicated by a sickened child standing in a devastated field where his tribespeople lay ill or dead with small pox or some other disease. The main character is even laid out Christ-like on the sacrificial stone before his life is spared by the eclipse.
But it all comes down to outrunning and outgunning his pursuers. His worst enemy gives him the name Almost as an insult and the promise to dispatch him one way or another. In the end the hero slams the guy’s head open with his own club. Sometimes almost is just good enough. That’s the message.
The Big Kill is saved for the leader of a killers, a giant man with piercings and armor and tattoos that say I’ll Kill You. He threatens to skin the hero and wear it in front of him.
But he gets his due when a booby-trapped spear swings out from a tree to put a hole in his body. End of story for Mean Guy.
We all know we’re supposed to turn the other cheek. We all know that movies use blood for drama. Violence makes our blood run faster, and our hearts too.
But the fact of the matter is that we’re all running from something, in some way. It’s the mark of human evolution that we’re in a competitive race to see who wins and who survives. All the faith in the world really doesn’t change that for most of us.
There’s a little Apocalypto in us all. So get out there and run. It’s your only way to survive.