Let's get this part out of the way: Mel Gibson, by all appearances, is an arrogant, hateful man—wouldn't want him as a neighbor, wouldn't want him as a friend. But for all his lunacy, the crazed Catholic makes spectacular movies: The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto are extravagant cris de cœur by a mad genius.
Not that Gibson's cœur is anything to admire. Even when he isn't busy inciting pogroms, he's tossing bombs from the wrong side of the culture wars, making movies and proclamations that further the fundamentalists' conviction that they know the mind of God and just how he would like them to reorganize the country. Passion and Apocalypto are worth watching because they are the intellectual equivalent of snuff films. Gibson takes an idea (in Passion, the suffering of Christ; in Apocalypto, the end of civilization), pushes it off a cliff, and documents, in loving detail, its long fall onto the rocks below. Then, for good measure, he pans slowly across the splattered remains. In Apocalypto, Gibson has grafted his eschatological fantasies onto the Mayans, giving him license to imagine the fall of the corrupt secular West without having to wrestle with the political implications.
But that's all context—Apocalypto is shrewdly myopic. It focuses on one noble savage and lets the moral-historical message serve as backdrop. That protagonist is Jaguar Paw (played by a Comanche dancer from Oklahoma named Rudy Youngblood) who, along with the rest of his fellow innocents, is enslaved by foreign raiders, then escapes and wreaks an inadvertent, but civilization-razing, revenge.
The movie is gory and beautiful and more fantasy than history. Fortunately, Gibson can count on most of us not knowing anything about—who are these people again? On one side, Edenic hunter-gatherers who live thinly veiled Christian lives: They pray to Ixchel, "tender mother of mercy"; Jaguar Paw, their avatar, is the one "reborn from mud and earth"; his wife, their avatrix, gives birth under hostile conditions. On the other, a rotten, citified civilization that raids the innocent forest dwellers, rapes and pillages, then enslaves the survivors, hauling them on a days-long death march to the center of their City of Man after passing a clear-cutting operation, drought-ridden fields, disease-ridden slums, and what appears to be a talcum-powder mine. Did I mention that the movie ends with: "in remembrance of Abel"? Or that it begins with a quote from philosopher and historian Will Durant: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within"? Gibson is telling a parable that feels half-Christian, half-Marxist—wicked civilizations exploit the weak and are doomed to fall. Jaguar Paw is a symbol of humble righteousness, tortured and hounded by the agents of a rotten empire. Apocalypto pits innocence against experience, Eden against Babylon—it could be called The Passion of the Geists.
To force-feed you some fruit from the tree of knowledge (AKA a "spoiler alert"): Jaguar Paw and his villagers are dragged to the top of a pyramid in the center of the city to have their hearts cut out, Temple of Doom–style, in front of a screaming mob. He escapes his captors thanks to a fortuitous eclipse, then evades his pursuers thanks to a series of small miracles involving a jaguar, a poisonous snake, and an enormous waterfall. By the time we get to the quicksand, we get it already—Jaguar Paw (who becomes, midway through, a kind of Paleolithic Rambo) is the anointed one and he need not fear shit for his god is with him even though his wife is giving birth standing up in a flooded cave while her older son perches on her shoulders to keep from drowning. The family is finally saved by the arrival of Spanish conquistadores—Ixchel works in mysterious ways—and slips off to found the New Jerusalem, Amazonian style.
Whatever its spiritual symbolism, Apocalypto is fun to watch and vividly gross in that special Mel Gibson way—there are spurting head wounds, oozing sores, blood sports, decapitations, face chewing, and battle scenes featuring the finest in 15th-century bludgeon technology. It's spectacular like his last movie, except with more trees and fewer Jews to hate on—and the name Jaguar Paw is so much awesomer than Jesus Christ.