Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The films are stacking up a bit so I need to opine...

Apocalypto, the latest offering from Mel Gibson, had me quite excited. Mostly because of how The Passion of the Christ had turned out. I expected a very slick, slightly gritty epic. You can't always get what you want however.

Putting aside briefly the kerfuffle over Gibson's apparent antisemitism, the expression of which might be seen at best as the drunken rantings of a ludicrously insulated and egotistical Hollywood celebrity, his work has, over the years, shown that he has genuine talent both as an actor and a director. Whether he chooses to reveal this on occasion, rather than being led by his more highly developed commercial instincts is perhaps due to nothing more important than what he most enjoys doing.

His work in Zeffirelli's 1990 version of Hamlet was of a very high calibre. As someone who studied Hamlet for A-level English and saw several productions of the play including Daniel Day-Lewis at The National in London I feel at least partly qualified to comment in this regard. As a director on The Passion he again proved his ability with a film that was both original, technically superb and also potentially very difficult to pull off - and it was all in Aramaic. Definitely not pandering to the cinema-going public.

With Apocalypto, a tale of tribal infighting and enslavement in the equatorial rainforests set in Mesoamerica in the era prior to Spanish conquest, we have a film that has the potential to take us into the minds and lives of its subjects, beneath the veneer of studio gloss and set construction and also provide a genuine spectacle. They have gone to the trouble of making the film in the Mayan Yukatek language and there is a large cast of extras.

What seems to have happened with this film is that the studio has taken over. The film is basically shot in the back-lot at Universal. There are locations, but they have the feel of being tacked on to the film. And with this comes a lot of studio based gloop in the form of a hammy plot adorned with hugly expensive sets, costumes and makeup. The initial village scenes in the jungle show us the apocraphyl noble savages returning after a hunt to their village idyll. All this just about holds water but as soon as this peaceful haven is invaded by slave hunters from another tribe so the film begins to suffer from a Ben Hur-like addiction to rampant cliche and a feeling of unreality which never progresses to anything even approaching mystical fantasy.

This is a great shame because this commercial slant, which basically makes the film nothing more than a bit of rumble in the jungle which might have wide appeal but at the cost of any substance, does not have to preclude the vitality and compelling themes which are present in the idea behind the makeup. If you've seen The New World or Ten Canoes you will know what I mean.

Eden before the fall is not an original idea but it is compelling and evokes many things in the mind of an audience, offering as it does a glimpse into the past as well as an examination of humans in general and each one of us in particular. There is some of this present in the film but it is too unsubtle, too Hollywood and too unsatisfying to make the picture into anything other than a forgettable weekend outing which panders to stereotypes and takes its lessons in history from the kinds of text books one comes across well before the age of 16.

1 comment:

ml said...

agree with almost everything except some of what you are saying is obviously way beyond me given that i never studied hamlet for A-level english. :)

if the film had a message i did not get it. one also learn very little about the ancient mayan culture-something I was looking forward to see (I had spent sometime in Guatemala). this led me to believe that Gibson really meant to make this an action flick, so in that sense the film is quite good. it was action-packed and exhilarating, and the movie probably would have done a lot better at the box office if Gibson didn’t get all that bad press beforehand – very little was done on the marketing front. I definitely recommend it to the female audience – there is nothing more entertaining than watching the barely clothed young Jaguar Paw running around in the jungle for 2 hrs.

ps. please go see Pan’s Labyrinth - best movie in ’06 in my opinion.