Holy crap! Does that look like a golden marmaset to you, holmes?
Mel Gibson is a master manipulator when comes to finding the fundamentally human element in dangerous, alien situations. He did is as William Wallace in 12th century Scotland in Braveheart (1995) and his eponymous performances in the near-future Australian Mad Max movies has proved it this already.
Apocalypto, from 2006, takes place in a painstaking re-creation of ancient indigenous Central American culture near Guatamala close to the end of the bloody Aztec Empire in the 14th Century. The re-creation of the culture of the violent Aztecs and peacefull early Maya tribals is breath-taking but the plot follows a bizarre chain of coincidences. Nothing can be taken away from any the film-makers for the visual aspects, in 2007 the film won a regional Best Cinematography award from Central Ohio Film Critics Association, while the screen-writing is groan-inducing.
What gets to be a pretty huge distraction are the series of plot holes covered by a "What are the odds?" philosophy to screen-writing (courtesy of Farhad Safinia) that destroys this illusion. The story finds itself in several immediate and pressing corners that are navigated by way of extremely unlikely events. This just keeps happening for like two hours in these strikingly lush jungles and ancient temples.
The tribals are led into the biggest plot hole in the past in 100 years of film-making.
Here's what Mel Gibson, who I have a lot of sincere respect for, is asking you as a viewing audience to believe:
Plot Hole #1) Well, the Aztec headhunters arrive to enslave the Mayan tribals but luckily there's a small cave nearby that the hero, Jaguar Paw, conveniently hides his family in - while most everyone else is slaughtered or enslaved. Seems weird, but OK.
Plot Hole #2) Well, the tribals are taken to Aztec City and are about to be slaughtered on a bloody altar to a demon god. Luckily a solar eclipse occurs just as the protagonist is about to be gutted. How's about that? On top of this, Aztecs worship the sun! Double whammy! What are the odds that the tribals escape a gory death because of an exceedingly rare solar eclipse on the same day the sun worshipers are sacrificing hicks? I did not see that coming - sort of seems inconceivable...
Plot Hole #3) Well, next, the tribals were all killed but Jaguar Paw. He narrowly escapes when his friend Big Lug, who somehow is still clinging to life despite being fiercely bludgeoned at least dozen times over the head, delays a headhunter long enough for the protagonist to slay said Aztec headhunter.
Is that convenient or what? But, wait Mr. Gibson, I swear I just watched Big Lug die a few seconds ago. Oh well, seems pretty weird - maybe the war club was hollow? Aw, you and your wacky Stone Age narrative devices...
In ancient Central America, all plots revolve around near misses, awkward narrative devices, fortunate circumstances and sloppy writing.
Plot Hole #4) As the third and final act heats up, a new series of unlikely co-incidences aid Jaguar Paw as he flees the Aztec city of Head-chop-opolis.
The series of unlikely coincidences start as a female jaguar encounters the wounded and tired protagonist. It leaps and kills an Aztec headhunter just as Jaguar Paw is about to be kitty litter. Next, at a rocky waterfall, Jaguar Paw survives a 250 foot plunge that kills a few of his Aztec pursuers. Next, a particularly evil headhunter nearly takes Jaguar Paw's head off but luckily Jaguar Paw is only slightly grazed. Next, unfazed, he makes a 50-foot wire-assisted slide to counter attack - delivering a killing blow to his former captor. Quadruple whammy!
Plot Hole #5) To top off the whole series of story annihilating coincidences, Jaguar Paw and his family are miraculously saved, by all things, the Spanish Conquistadores. The Spanish slavers arrive exactly as Jaguar Paw is about to be killed by the last two headhunters. Holy discovery of the New World, Cap'N, what are the odds?
In closing, if the point of these very unlikely occurrences happening in a row was for the protagonist to appear to be blessed then: why the hell did the last miracle appear in the form of the Conquistadores? The Conquistadores went on to systematically wipe out the entire indigenous culture! That seems so irrational and illogical that I'm truly lost with this one. My ability to suspend disbelief evaporated after about 20 coincidences ago. I kept expecting Gandalf to trot out and pay out some bitch slaps to random headhunters towards the end of the film. Why not? Never woulda seen that coming either. Sweet, swaddle-clothed Jesus.
For a movie that tried to ground itself in photographic and contextual realism, Apocalypto's unsteady reliance on a chain of coincidences ultimately destroys the very illusion that Gibson strives to create. This an out-standing movie with the down-side of too many coincidences. If there was even a hint of a divine intervention, outside of some sparse and unintelligible pondering from time to time, it could have redeemed these many lapses in the writing.
In the final analysis, Apocalypto is a pain-stakingly re-created Mesoamerican world made for a documentary that ends up getting humped to death by an American action movie.