Do you remember the opening moments of Plan 9 From Outer Space? That bit called “Criswell Predicts,” where Criswell predicts… nothing at all? He talks about the future, but then starts in on “secret testimony” and then asks us if we can handle the shocking facts of “grave robbers from outer space”? Remember? Okay, you can watch it then.
Ah, that does my heart good.
I’m going to go one better than Criswell here and make some predictions about Mel Gibson's new bloodfest Apocalypto, a movie that there is no way in hell I am going to see. So I’m going to make my predictions about the film based entirely on the trailer.
It’s clear even from the trailer that Mel Gibson believes. I don’t mean that he believes in the Resurrection, or in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (although these are bright stars in the constellation of Gibson’s faith) – he believes in spectacular cinema, the grand event, the historical epic and the salubrious power of violence. He also believes in simple stories: a peaceful man gets pushed too far by an evil government, takes his revenge, dies for his beliefs; a stranger shows up in town, gets into trouble with an evil government, dies for his beliefs. As stories go, it’s an oldie.
Given these elements, I’m going to take a stab at Apocalypto. Wherever my Apocalypto differs from Gibson’s Apocalypto, mine is the correct one. Because it’s imaginary, just like my assertions that I am better-looking, wealthier and more successful than Mel Gibson.
There’s a guy. He’s a nice guy. He wears a loincloth, lives in the jungle, shaves his teeth. Basically an ordinary Joe like you or me, just wanting to live his life. He’s also a really good hunter. No one hunts like Joe. And judging from the trailer, no one spends three hours running through the jungle like Joe.
Joe loves a girl. She’s a pretty girl, with nicer teeth than the rest of the women who sit around by the fire, picking plants and having babies. But she’s no ordinary Jane. She’s a high-class Jane with a heart of gold.
Jane belongs to an important family. Her father’s a priest. But not just any priest. This priest belongs to a special order that likes to pick out victims and, with a Molarum here and a Sularum there, pull out their beating hearts as an offering to the gods.
A word on the gods: lately they haven’t been so kind to the Mayans. The streets are plagued with disease and crops have been failing. Wars of conquest haven’t gone their way, and the mob is growing restless. The rulers don’t know why. The elite can’t figure it out. Father Molarum-Sularum comes up with an answer: well, we haven’t been sacrificing enough ordinary Joes. If we increase our human sacrifice quotas by 500%, the gods will be appeased and let us flourish again.
The real reason the society is suffering has to do with the deforestation surrounding the urban areas. As the people cut down more and more trees for fuel and building material, they deplete their primary energy resource and destroy the layer of topsoil needed for agriculture. As crops fail, the rural population begins to migrate to the urban areas in search of work. The ranks of the army swell with the displaced children of farmers. The government cannot pay all the wages for the military, so it sends them out on missions of conquest to claim more resources and territory. More people migrate into the urban areas. Poverty, crowding, disease ensue. Clergy and government tighten their hold on the people. Eventually an armed coup deposes the ruling elite, who join the heap of bodies at the steps of the temple. By then it is too late, and the once-vibrant society dwindles away. The smart ones find somewhere else to live.
Whoah, wait? Was I implying that a culture’s material habits determine its fate? That groups of people will develop just enough technology to exploit existing resources to their fullest, but not enough technology to operate outside their resource envelope? That is probably our greatest quality and flaw in one – that we are so good at making do with what we have that we are capable of building unsustainable structures. But that won’t be a prominent theme in Apocalypto. The Mayans are going to fail because their ruling class is morally bankrupt and their society is sick and their gods are barbaric. And because they practice Unspeakable Jungle Rituals, out there in the humid jungles of the soul.
Okay. One day the Molarum-Sularum squad – the baddest of the bad, the sharpest-toothed motherfuckers in the pack - picks up Hunter Joe on a sacrifice sweep. Maybe it’s accidental. Maybe Joe’s hunting and running prowess has made him too popular with the masses, and the priest fears him. Maybe the priest is more than a little peeved at the way his daughter follows Hunter Joe around, all moon-eyed and such. Whatever the case may be (we always need a bit of ambiguity in a movie to keep us wondering), Hunter Joe is dragged before the long-nailed priest with his serpentine fingers and heart-extracting ways.
Jane finds out at the last moment and begs her father to show some mercy. Surely the gods are not so cruel as to kill off the best hunter/runner in the whole empire? Father Molarum-Sularum relents. He even agrees to let her marry him – that’s how kind he’s suddenly become. However, he must win a race and hunt down a black panther that has been plaguing people, attacking by leaping out of the underbrush directly at the camera.
Let’s not waste our sympathy on the priest. The race is rigged, the hunt is jigged, and the upshot is the downfall of Hunter Joe. Jane overhears her father’s evil schemes, so her father throws her in some kind of pit and even decrees that she be sacrificed, so hardened is his heart. Maybe he's possessed by one of his gods, who knows. They do that.
Before Jane is imprisoned, she gets word to Hunter Joe. He beats the Molarum-Sularum squad at their game and saves Jane. The priest, in a moment of great irony, is killed by the black panther as he pursues the couple through foliage. Joe and Jane get hitched and rule the empire wisely. No more Unspeakable Jungle Rituals. The end!
Let me offer this disclaimer, because I don’t want people who think they’re smart to tell me I’m wrong about Apocalypto. I know I’m wrong. This has been a joke. Gibson’s heroes are never so close to the source of power. And their triumph is invariably found in death, a spray of blood, breath and spirit into the atmosphere.
I never dealt with the weird little kid at the start of the trailer, did I? She shows up every so often to say "You are all doomed! Dooooomed!" etc.
And since we’re on a roll, here’s Criswell ushering us out. God help us all in the future.