A tapir is being tracked down by a group of hunters, and they manage to trap it with nets and a large spiked contraption that kills it. The men pull the body from the spikes and set about opening it up, with one getting the heart, another the liver, then the ears are handed out, and finally the testicles to one hapless hunter, the butt of everyone's jokes, who tries to munch down on them only to retch. The others laugh and tell him he's been made a fool of, and eventually head back to their village where their families await. One of them is Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), and he is about to embark on a traumatic adventure...
Apocalypto was director Mel Gibson's follow up to his worldwide smash hit The Passion of the Christ, and like that film used the language of screen violence to tell his story. Co-written by co-producer Farhad Safinia, it tells the story of a culture that is about to die out, the Mayan civilisation which Jaguar Paw and his tribesmen get closer to than they would feel comfortable with. It begins with an idyllic look at the protagonist's environment with some primitive humour thrown in - we're talking Porky's level here, but soon there are ominous movements afoot.
One of those is the appearance of an unfamiliar tribe who are making their way through the territory of Jaguar Paw, and after offering some appeasement in the shape of some big fish to eat, they tell of a sinster development that has forced them out of their home. This, as we will find out, is the approach of the Mayans on the lookout for slaves and human sacrifices, and when Jaguar Paw awakes the morning after he finds the encampment invaded by an unstoppable force.
He succeeds in hiding his pregnant wife and their child in a nearby and empty well before he is captured, but they end up stuck in there when a suspicious warrior cuts the rope that lowered them down in the first place. Then our hero is tied to a pole with a group of his fellows and the march begins to the Mayan city. Like Gibson's version of Christ, the leading character is passive for a long stretch of the story, but where the Christ's lack of rebellion is a form of fighting back in itself, Jaguar Paw eventually turns around and says "no more" when he is being chased through the jungle by enemy warriors.
But you have to wait until the film is over halfway over for him to make a stand, as before that he does whatever the Mayans tell him to. Not that he has much choice, yet this means Apocalypto is largely inert as a story as its characters might have well been on a conveyor belt. It also relies on a lot of coincidence and luck, as the sole reason Jaguar Paw is spared on the altar is because of the world's fastest solar eclipse. Things pick up when he manages to escape into the jungle, and a race against time is added to the mix as he has to get back and save his wife and child (while evading the warriors on his trail). Apparently Gibson had pretentions to telling the tale of the end of a civilisation, but mainly this is a simple, if bloodthirsty, adventure story that doesn't turn exciting until too late in the day. Although if it's lots of slow motion running you're after, then jump aboard. Music by James Horner.