|Directed by||Mel Gibson|
|Music by||James Horner|
|Edited by||John Wright|
|Distributed by||Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures|
|Box office||$120.6 million|
Apocalypto is a 2006 American epic adventure film directed and produced by Mel Gibson. It was written by Gibson and Farhad Safinia. Set in Petén, Guatemala, during the proto-Historic period about A.D. 1511, Apocalypto depicts the journey of a Mesoamerican tribesman who must escape human sacrifice and rescue his family after the capture and destruction of his village.
The film features a cast of Maya and Native American actors. The entire dialogue is in the Yucatec Maya language, with English and other language subtitles, in order to immerse the viewer in the world it portrays.
The film was a financial success; however, its depictions of indigenous cultures sparked controversy, despite there being numerous initial-contact eyewitness accounts of the society by the colonial Spanish at the time. The controversy centered on the accuracy of the depiction of the Maya. Some critics felt the portrayal of the Maya as sadistic savages was "offensive" and damaged attempts at cultural sensitivity. Other experts felt it portrayed the Maya more accurately and realistically, in the way it represented the civilization's decline, and the film's avoidance of questionable distinctions between "peaceful" Olmecs and "brutal" Maya civilizations as drawn by early researchers. The authenticity of the film has been verified by numerous scholars, including a recent essay by Dr. Richard Hansen (University of Utah) describing the filming and providing a critical review of its criticisms.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Cast
- 3 Production
- 4 Soundtrack
- 5 Distribution and marketing
- 6 Themes
- 7 Reception
- 8 Box office
- 9 Controversy
- 10 References
- 11 External links
While hunting tapir in the Mesoamerican rainforest, Jaguar Paw/Paksiw (Rudy Youngblood), his father Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), and their fellow tribesmen encounter a procession of refugees fleeing warfare. The group's leader explains that their lands were ravaged, and asks for permission to pass through the jungle. Flint Sky points out to his son that the visitors were sick with fear, and never to allow fear to infect him.
At dawn the next morning, the tribe's village is raided, its huts set on fire, and many villagers killed with the rest. Jaguar Paw's heavily pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernández) and their young son Turtle's Run (Carlos Emilio Báez), escape by hiding in a deep vertical cave, but are left trapped when Jaguar Paw is captured. The raiders, led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo); Middle Eye (Gerardo Taracena) kill Flint Sky, then lead the captives on a long forced march through the jungle.
On the journey, Cocoa Leaf, a badly wounded captive tied to the same pole as Jaguar Paw, nearly tumbles off a cliff, but Jaguar Paw and the others manage to pull him back up with incredible effort. Cocoa Leaf is killed for this, eliciting anger from Zero Wolf, who threatens his fellow raider with death if he kills a captive again without permission. As the party approach the Mayan cities, they encounter razed forests and failed maize crops, along with villages decimated by plague. A little girl dying of plague prophesies that a solar eclipse will occur and says that a man running with a jaguar will end the Mayan's world. In the city's outskirts, slaves are seen working in lime quarries; the female captives are sold as slaves while the males are escorted to the top of a step pyramid to be sacrificed.
As Jaguar Paw is about to be sacrificed, a solar eclipse occurs. The priest quickly declares the god Kukulkan is satisfied with the sacrifices and asks Kukulkan to let light return. The remaining captives are ordered to be taken away and "disposed of". Zero Wolf and others take the captives away and release them in pairs; they are offered freedom if they avoid being killed during the ensuing target practice. They are teased with the promise of freedom if they reach the end of the length of the court, while Zero Wolf's son, Cut Rock (Ricardo Díaz Mendoza), is sent to the end of the court to "finish" any survivors. Jaguar Paw is shot in the waist, but kills Cut Rock as the latter approaches. Zero Wolf comforts his dying son by easing him into the next life, then sets off with his comrades to chase down and kill Jaguar Paw. Back in his native jungle, Jaguar Paw now has the advantage, although badly injured. His pursuers are gradually whittled down and killed by a black jaguar guarding her cubs, a cliff fall, and poison frog darts. Jaguar Paw is strengthened by remembering his father's injunction never to give in to fear, while his pursuers are weakened by fear and apprehension; some only pursue him due to the force of Zero Wolf's leadership.
Heavy rain begins to fall, threatening to drown Jaguar Paw's trapped family as he races towards their old village. Zero Wolf shoots Jaguar Paw with an arrow, but dies when tricked into the tapir-hunting trap set in the opening scene; he is impaled and killed. Following Zero Wolf's death, the two remaining raiders chase Jaguar Paw out of the undergrowth. As they reach the beach, all three see an incomprehensible sight ahead of them - actually conquistador ships anchored off the coast and Europeans making their way ashore for supplies and water. Jaguar Paw flees while the two raiders are left astounded at the conquistador presence. He returns to save his wife and son from the flooded pit; Seven has just given birth to their second son. Sometime later, as the reunited family look out from the forest toward the Spanish ships, Seven wonders if they should go to the men. Jaguar Paw says they should return to the forest to start a new beginning.
Screenwriter and co-producer Farhad Safinia first met Mel Gibson while working as an assistant during the post-production of The Passion of the Christ. Eventually, Gibson and Safinia found time to discuss "their mutual love of movies and what excites them about moviemaking".
We started to talk about what to do next, but we specifically spent a lot of time on the action-chase genre of filmmaking. Those conversations essentially grew into the skeleton of ('Apocalypto'). We wanted to update the chase genre by, in fact, not updating it with technology or machinery but stripping it down to its most intense form, which is a man running for his life, and at the same time getting back to something that matters to him.—Farhad Safinia
Gibson said they wanted to "shake up the stale action-adventure genre", which he felt was dominated by CGI, stock stories and shallow characters and to create a footchase that would "feel like a car chase that just keeps turning the screws."
Gibson and Safinia were also interested in portraying and exploring an ancient culture as it existed before the arrival of the Europeans. Considering both the Aztecs and the Maya, they eventually chose the Maya for their high sophistication and their eventual decline.
The Mayas were far more interesting to us. You can choose a civilization that is bloodthirsty, or you can show the Maya civilization that was so sophisticated with an immense knowledge of medicine, science, archaeology and engineering ... but also be able to illuminate the brutal undercurrent and ritual savagery that they practiced. It was a far more interesting world to explore why and what happened to them.—Farhad Safinia
The two researched ancient Maya history, reading both creation and destruction myths, including sacred texts such as the Popul Vuh. In the audio commentary of the film's first DVD release, Safinia states that the old shaman's story (played by Espiridion Acosta Cache, a modern-day Maya storyteller) was modified from an authentic Mesoamerican tale that was re-translated by the young Maya professor Hilario Chi Canul, a professor of Maya, into the Yucatec Maya language for the film. He also served as a dialogue coach during production. As they researched the script, Safinia and Gibson traveled to Guatemala, Costa Rica and the Yucatán peninsula to scout filming locations and visit Maya ruins.
Claiming to strive for a degree of historical accuracy, the filmmakers employed a consultant, Richard D. Hansen, a specialist in the Maya and assistant professor of archaeology at Idaho State University. As director of the Mirador Basin Project, he works to preserve a large swath of the Guatemalan rain forest and its Maya ruins. Gibson has said of Hansen's involvement: "Richard's enthusiasm for what he does is infectious. He was able to reassure us and make us feel secure that what we were writing had some authenticity as well as imagination."
Other scholars of Mesoamerican history criticized the film for numerous inaccuracies. See further coverage on the film's questionable historical accuracy and representation of the Maya below under "Controversy". A minority of scholars have also risen to defend the film claiming ignorance or political correctness as the primary motivator for the criticisms, though much of the criticism comes from Mayas themselves. A recent essay by Hansen on the film and a critical commentary on the criticisms of the film is now published.
Gibson decided that all the dialogue would be in the Yucatec Maya language. Gibson explains: "I think hearing a different language allows the audience to completely suspend their own reality and get drawn into the world of the film. And more importantly, this also puts the emphasis on the cinematic visuals, which are a kind of universal language of the heart.". It was also appropriate considering that the story takes place in coastal Yucatán.
Costumes and makeup
The production team consisted of a large group of make-up artists and costume designers who worked to recreate the Maya look for the large cast. Led by Aldo Signoretti, the make-up artists daily applied the required tattoos, scarification, and earlobe extensions to all of the on-screen actors. According to advisor Richard D. Hansen, the choices in body make-up were based on both artistic license and fact: "I spent hours and hours going through the pottery and the images looking for tattoos. The scarification and tattooing was all researched, the inlaid jade teeth are in there, the ear spools are in there. There is a little doohickey that comes down from the ear through the nose into the septum – that was entirely their artistic innovation." An example of attention to detail is the left arm tattoo of Seven, Jaguar Paw's wife, which is a horizontal band with two dots above – the Mayan symbol for the number seven.
Simon Atherton, an English armorer and weapon-maker who worked with Gibson on Braveheart, was hired to research and provide reconstructions of Maya weapons. Atherton also has a cameo as the cross-bearing Franciscan friar who appears on a Spanish ship at the end of the film.
Mel Gibson wanted Apocalypto to feature sets with buildings rather than relying on computer-generated images. Most of the step pyramids seen at the Maya city were models designed by Thomas E. Sanders. Sanders explained his approach: "We wanted to set up the Mayan world, but we were not trying to do a documentary. Visually, we wanted to go for what would have the most impact. Just as on Braveheart, you are treading the line of history and cinematography. Our job is to do a beautiful movie."
However, while many of the architectural details of Maya cities are correct, they are blended from different locations and eras, a decision Farhad Safinia said was made for aesthetic reasons. While Apocalypto is set during the terminal post-classic period of Maya civilization, the central pyramid of the film comes from the classic period, which ended in A.D. 900., such as those found in the Postclassic sites of Muyil, Coba, and others in Quintana Roo, Mexico, where later cities are built around earlier pyramids. The temples are in the shape of those of Tikal in the central lowlands classic style but decorated with the Puuc style elements of the northwest Yucatán centuries later. Richard D. Hansen comments, "There was nothing in the post-classic period that would match the size and majesty of that pyramid in the film. But Gibson ... was trying to depict opulence, wealth, consumption of resources." The mural in the arched walkway combined elements from the Maya codices, the Bonampak murals (over 700 years earlier than the film's setting), and the San Bartolo murals (some 1500 years earlier than the film's setting).
Gibson filmed Apocalypto mainly in Catemaco, San Andrés Tuxtla and Paso de Ovejas in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The waterfall scene was filmed at Eyipantla Falls, located in San Andrés Tuxtla. Other filming by second-unit crews took place in El Petén, Guatemala. The film was originally slated for an August 4, 2006, release, but Touchstone Pictures delayed the release date to December 8, 2006, due to heavy rains and two hurricanes interfering with filming in Mexico. Principal photography ended in July 2006.
Apocalypto was shot on high-definition digital video, using the Panavision Genesis camera. During filming, Gibson and cinematographer Dean Semler employed the use of Spydercam, a suspended camera system allowing shooting from atop. This equipment was used in a scene in which Jaguar Paw leaps off a waterfall.
We had a Spydercam shot from the top of [the] 150-foot (46 m) waterfall, looking over an actor's shoulder and then plunging over the edge – literally in the waterfall. I thought we'd be doing it on film, but we put the Genesis [camera] up there in a light-weight water housing. The temperatures were beyond 100 degrees at [the] top, and about 60 degrees at the bottom, with the water and the mist. We shot two fifty-minute tapes without any problems – though we [did get] water in there once and fogged up.
The soundtrack to Apocalypto was composed by James Horner in his third collaboration with director Mel Gibson. The soundtrack lacks a traditional orchestral score and instead features a large array of exotic instruments and vocals by Pakistani singer Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Distribution and marketing
While Mel Gibson financed the film through his Icon Productions, Disney signed on to distribute Apocalypto for a fee in certain markets. The publicity for the film started with a December 2005 teaser trailer that was filmed before the start of principal photography and before Rudy Youngblood was cast as Jaguar Paw. As a joke, Gibson inserted a subliminal cameo of the bearded director in a plaid shirt with a cigarette hanging from his mouth posing next to a group of dust-covered Maya. A clean-shaven Gibson also filmed a Mayan-language segment for the introduction of the 2006 Academy Awards in which he declined to host the ceremony. On September 23, 2006, Gibson pre-screened the unfinished film to two predominantly Native American audiences in the US state of Oklahoma, at the Riverwind Casino in Goldsby, owned by the Chickasaw Nation, and at Cameron University in Lawton. He also did a pre-screening in Austin, Texas, on September 24 in conjunction with one of the film's stars, Rudy Youngblood. In Los Angeles, Gibson screened Apocalypto and participated in a Q&A session for Latin Business Association and for members of the Maya community. Due to an enthusiastic response from exhibitors, Disney opened the film on more than 2,500 screens in the United States.
According to Mel Gibson, the Mayan setting of Apocalypto is "merely the backdrop" for a more universal story of exploring "civilizations and what undermines them". The background to the events depicted is the terminal Postclassic period, immediately prior to the arrival of the Spanish, ca. 1511, which the filmmakers researched before writing. According to archaeologist Michael D. Coe,
"Maya civilization in the Central Area reached its full glory in the early eighth century, but it must have contained the seeds of its own destruction, for in the century and a half that followed, all its magnificent cities had fallen into decline and ultimately suffered abandonment. This was surely one of the most profound social and demographic catastrophes of all human history."
Coe lists "environmental collapse" as one of the leading causes of the fall of the great empire, alongside "endemic warfare", "overpopulation", and "drought". "There is mounting evidence for massive deforestation and erosion throughout the Central Area. The Maya apocalypse, for such it was, surely had ecological roots," explains Coe. The plight of the Postclassic Maya is thought to have replicated much of the same situations as existed centuries earlier during the collapse of the Classic period Maya.
The corrosive forces of corruption are illustrated in specific scenes throughout the film. Excessive consumption can be seen in the extravagant lifestyle of the upper-class Maya, their vast wealth contrasted with the sickly, the extremely poor, and the enslaved. Environmental degradation is portrayed both in the exploitation of natural resources, such as the over-mining and farming of the land, but also through the treatment of people, families and entire tribes as resources to be harvested and sold into slavery. Political corruption is seen in the leaders' manipulation, the human sacrifice on a large scale, and the slave trade. The film shows slaves being forced to create the lime stucco cement that covered the temples, an act that some historians consider a major factor in the Maya decline. One calculation estimates that it would take five tons of jungle forestry to make one ton of quicklime. Historical consultant Richard D. Hansen explains, "I found one pyramid in El Mirador that would have required nearly 650 hectares (1,600 acres) of every single available tree just to cover one building with lime stucco... Epic construction was happening... creating devastation on a huge scale."
The filmmakers intended this depiction of the Maya collapse to have relevance for contemporary society. The problems "faced by the Maya are extraordinarily similar to those faced today by our own civilization," co-writer Safinia stated during production, "especially when it comes to widespread environmental degradation, excessive consumption and political corruption". Gibson has stated that the film is an attempt at illustrating the parallels between a great fallen empire of the past and the great empires of today, saying "People think that modern man is so enlightened, but we're susceptible to the same forces – and we are also capable of the same heroism and transcendence." The film serves as a cultural critique – in Hansen's words, a "social statement" – sending the message that it is never a mistake to question our own assumptions about morality. The main purpose of the movie has a lot to do with a quote from Will Durant at the very beginning of the movie "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within", the fighting between tribes, and the arrival of the Conquistadors aboard the ships at the end of the movie.
However, Gibson has also stated that he wanted the film to be hopeful rather than entirely negative. Gibson has defined the title as "a new beginning or an unveiling – a revelation"; he says "Everything has a beginning and an end, and all civilizations have operated like that". The Greek word (ἀποκαλύπτω, apokaluptō) is in fact a verb meaning "I uncover", "disclose", or "reveal". Gibson has also said a theme of the film is the exploration of primal fears.
Apocalypto received mixed to positive reviews from critics and has a score of 65% on Rotten tomatoes based on 196 reviews with an average rating of 6.3 out of 10. The critical consensus states "Apocalypto is a brilliantly filmed, if mercilessly bloody, examination of a once great civilization."
Richard Roeper and guest critic Aisha Tyler on the television show Ebert & Roeper gave it "two thumbs up" rating. Michael Medved gave Apocalypto four stars (out of four) calling the film "an adrenaline-drenched chase movie" and "a visceral visual experience."
The film was released less than six months after Gibson's 2006 DUI incident, where the director made antisemitic comments to police after being stopped on suspicion of drunk driving; the incident garnered Gibson much negative publicity and magnified concerns some had over alleged antisemitism in his previous film, The Passion of the Christ. Several key film critics alluded to the incident in their reviews of Apocalypto: In his positive review, The New York Times A. O. Scott commented: "say what you will about him – about his problem with booze or his problem with Jews – he is a serious filmmaker." The Boston Globe review came to a similar conclusion, noting that "Gibson may be a lunatic, but he's our lunatic, and while I wouldn't wish him behind the wheel of a car after happy hour or at a B'nai Brith function anytime, behind a camera is another matter." In a negative review, Salon.com noted "People are curious about this movie because of what might be called extra-textual reasons, because its director is an erratic and charismatic Hollywood figure who would have totally marginalized himself by now if he didn't possess a crude gift for crafting violent pop entertainment."
Apocalypto gained some passionate champions in the Hollywood community. Actor Robert Duvall called it "maybe the best movie I've seen in 25 years". Director Quentin Tarantino said, "I think it's a masterpiece. It was perhaps the best film of that year. I think it was the best artistic film of that year." Actor Edward James Olmos said, "I was totally caught off guard. It's arguably the best movie I've seen in years. I was blown away." In 2013, director Spike Lee put the film on his list of all-time essential films.
The film registered a wider number of viewers than Perfume and Rocky Balboa. It even displaced memorable Mexican premieres such as Titanic and Poseidon. According to polls performed by the newspaper Reforma, 80% of polled Mexicans labeled the film as "very good" or "good".
For his role as producer and director of the film, Mel Gibson was given the Trustee Award by the First Americans in the Arts organization. Gibson was also awarded the Latino Business Association's Chairman's Visionary Award for his work on Apocalypto on November 2, 2006, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, California. At the ceremony, Gibson said that the film was a "badge of honor for the Latino community." Gibson also stated that Apocalypto would help dismiss the notion that "history only began with Europeans".
- Central Ohio Film Critics Association – COFCA Award for Best Cinematography (2007) – Dean Semler
- Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association Awards – DFWFCA Award for Best Cinematography (2006) – Dean Semler
- First Americans in the Arts – FAITA Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actor (2007) – Rudy Youngblood
- First Americans in the Arts – FAITA Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actor (Supporting) (2007) – Morris Birdyellowhead
- Imagen Foundation – Imagen Award for Best Supporting Actor (2007) – Gerardo Taracena
- Imagen Foundation – Imagen Award for Best Supporting Actress (2007) – Dalia Hernandez
- Motion Picture Sound Editors, USA – Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing for Music in a Feature Film (2007) – Dick Bernstein (music editor), Jim Henrikson (music editor)
- Phoenix Film Critics Society – PFCS Award for Best Cinematography (2006) – Dean Semler
- Academy Awards, USA – Oscar for Best Makeup (2007) – Aldo Signoretti, Vittorio Sodano
- Academy Awards, USA – Oscar for Best Sound Editing (2007) – Sean McCormack, Kami Asgar
- Academy Awards, USA – Oscar for Best Sound Mixing (2007) – Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell, Fernando Cámara
- Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA – Saturn Award for Best Direction (2007) – Mel Gibson
- Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA – Saturn Award for Best International Film (2007)
- American Society of Cinematographers, USA – ASC Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases (2007) – Dean Semler
- BAFTA Awards – BAFTA Film Award for Best Film not in the English Language (2007) – Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey
- Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards – BFCA Award for Best Foreign Language Film (2007)
- Chicago Film Critics Association Awards – CFCA Award for Best Foreign Language Film (2006)
- Golden Globes, USA – Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film (2007)
- Hollywood Reporter Key Art Awards – Key Art Award for Best Action-Adventure Poster (2006)
- Imagen Foundation – Imagen Award for Best Picture (2007)
- Motion Picture Sound Editors, USA – Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing in a Feature Film: Dialogue and Automated Dialogue Replacement (2007) – Sean McCormack (supervising sound editor), Kami Asgar (supervising sound editor), Scott G.G. Haller (supervising dialogue editor), Jessica Gallavan (supervising ADR editor), Lisa J. Levine (supervising ADR editor), Linda Folk (supervising ADR editor)
- Online Film Critics Society Awards – OFCS Award for Best Cinematography (2007) – Dean Semler
- Satellite Awards – Satellite Award for Best Motion Picture, Foreign Language (2006)
- St. Louis Gateway Film Critics Association Awards – Award for Best Foreign Language Film (2006)
Representation of the Maya
William Booth of The Washington Post wrote that the film depicts the Maya as a "super-cruel, psycho-sadistic society on the skids, a ghoulscape engaged in widespread slavery, reckless sewage treatment and bad rave dancing, with a real lust for human blood." Gibson compared the savagery in the film to the Bush administration, telling British film magazine Hotdog, "The fear-mongering we depict in the film reminds me of President Bush and his guys." Just prior to its release, Apocalypto was criticized by activists in Guatemala, including Lucio Yaxon, who charged that the trailer depicts Maya as savages. In her review of the film, anthropologist Traci Ardren wrote that Apocalypto was biased because "no mention is made of the achievements in science and art, the profound spirituality and connection to agricultural cycles, or the engineering feats of Maya cities". Apocalypto also sparked a strong condemnation from art history professor Julia Guernsey, a Mesoamerican specialist, who said, "I think it's despicable. It's offensive to Maya people. It's offensive to those of us who try to teach cultural sensitivity and alternative world views that might not match our own 21st century Western ones but are nonetheless valid [...]. I think Mel Gibson is the worst thing that's happened to indigenous populations since the arrival of the Spanish. I say that in jest, but what is scary is that people will leave the movie thinking that because the characters were speaking Mayan there is an air of authenticity [...]".
Other writers felt that Gibson's film was more accurate about the Maya, since it depicts the era of decline and division that followed the civilization's peak, collapse, re-settlement, and proto-historic societal conditions. One Mexican reporter, Juan E. Pardinas, wrote that "this historical interpretation bears some resemblances with reality [...]. Mel Gibson's characters are more similar to the Mayas of the Bonampak's murals than the ones that appear in the Mexican school textbooks." "The first researchers tried to make a distinction between the 'peaceful' Maya and the 'brutal' cultures of central Mexico", David Stuart wrote in a 2003 article. "They even tried to say human sacrifice was rare among the Maya." But in carvings and mural paintings, Stuart said: "we have now found more and greater similarities between the Aztecs and Mayas."
Richard D. Hansen, who was a historical consultant on the film, stated that the impact the film will have on Maya archaeology will be beneficial: "It is a wonderful opportunity to focus world attention on the ancient Maya and to realize the role they played in world history." However, in an interview with the Washington Post, Hansen stated the film "give[s] the feeling they're a sadistic lot", and said, "I'm a little apprehensive about how the contemporary Maya will take it."
Apocalypto has been criticized for portraying a type of human sacrifice which was more typical of the Aztecs than of the Maya. Archaeologist Lisa Lucero said, "the classic Maya really didn't go in for mass sacrifice. That was the Aztecs." Anthropology professor Karl Taube argued that, "We know the Aztecs did that level of killing. Their accounts speak of 20,000." According to the film's technical advisor, the film was meant to describe the post-classic period of the Maya when fiercer influences like the Toltecs and Aztecs arrived. According to Hansen, "We know warfare was going on. The Postclassic center of Tulum is a walled city; these sites had to be in defensive positions. There was tremendous Aztec influence by this time. The Aztecs were clearly ruthless in their conquest and pursuit of sacrificial victims, a practice that spilled over into some of the Maya areas." Anthropology professor Stephen Houston made the criticism that sacrifice victims were more likely to be royalty and elites rather than common forest dwellers, as shown in Apocalypto. In contrast, Associate Professor William R. Fowler states that for major favors, worshippers "offered the gods human sacrifice, usually children, slaves, or prisoners of war". Anthropology professor Karl Taube criticized the film's apparent depiction of widespread slavery, saying, "We have no evidence of large numbers of slaves." Another disputed scene, when Jaguar Paw and the rest of captives are used as target practice, was acknowledged by the filmmakers to be invented as a plot device for igniting the chase sequence. Some anthropologists objected to the presence of a huge pit filled with rotting corpses near the fields of the Maya. Hansen states that this is "conjecture", saying that "all [Gibson was] trying to do there is express the horror of it".
The scene where the main character is rescued from sacrifice by a total solar eclipse was seen by some as being reminiscent of a similar incident in the Tintin comic Prisoners of the Sun. In the comic, Tintin and his companions are captured by a tribe of Inca, but are spared by a solar eclipse. However, Mel Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia categorically denied the rumor in the DVD commentary, where Gibson pointed to the Mayan's heavy emphasis on solar eclipses and other astronomical events. It should also be noted that such scenes are recurrent throughout literature, probably inspired by Columbus's use of the March 1504 lunar eclipse.
The solar eclipse pictured, however, is historically inaccurate. According to the NASA "Eclipse" website, the single total solar eclipse in 1502, which occurred in October of that year, would only have been visible across Scotland, eastern Europe and Iran, including small portions of Turkey, Malaysia, and present-day Oman, but could not have been seen in the Americas.
According to the DVD commentary track by Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia, the ending of the film was meant to depict the first contact between the Spaniards and Mayas that took place in 1502 during the fourth voyage of Christopher Columbus.
The thematic meaning of the arrival of the Europeans is a subject of disagreement. Traci Ardren wrote that the Spanish arrivals were Christian missionaries and that the film had a "blatantly colonial message that the Mayas needed saving because they were 'rotten at the core'". According to Ardren, the Gibson film "replays, in glorious big-budget technicolor, an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one another long before the arrival of Europeans and thus they deserved, in fact they needed, rescue. This same idea was used for 500 years to justify the subjugation of Maya people". On the other hand, David van Biema questions whether the Spaniards are portrayed as saviours of the Mayas, since they are depicted ominously and Jaguar Paw decides to return to the woods. This view is supported by the reference of the Oracle Girl to those who would "Scratch out the earth. Scratch you out. And end your world." However, recalling the opening quote to the film ("A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within"), professors David Stuart and Stephen Houston have written the implication is that Postclassic Mayans had become so corrupt that they were "a civilization... that deserves to die."
In January 2007, it was reported that filmmaker Mel Gibson, his production company Icon Productions, and the film's distributor Buena Vista (Disney) were being sued by Mexican filmmaker Juan Mora Catlett, who claimed that Apocalypto used scenes and plotlines from his 1991 film Retorno a Aztlán. Later it was reported that the Mexican director did not intend to pursue anything legally, his only concern being that his own work be given due recognition.
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About 25 members of the Maya community in Los Angeles were invited to an advance screening of Gibson's film last week. Two of those who attended came away impressed, but added that they too wished Gibson had shown more of the Maya civilization. "It was a great action film that kept me on the edge of my seat," said Sara Zapata Mijares, president and founder of Federacion de Clubes Yucatecos-USA. "I think it should have had a little bit more of the culture", such as the pyramids. "It could have shown a little more why these buildings were built.
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Translation from the original in Spanish: "La mala noticia es que esta interpretación histórica tiene alguna dosis de realidad... Los personajes de Mel Gibson se parecen más a los mayas de los murales de Bonampak que a los que aparecen en los libros de la SEP"
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