"Apocalypto": the reviews are in.

So… what did Mel Gibson do with all of that money he made off of The Passion of the Christ? He made Apocalypto. And here’s what Christian film critics are saying…

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films):

Gibson is a consummate filmmaker, and the action is never less than riveting. Yet as the film repeatedly ratchets up the wince factor beyond what seems necessary or appropriate, it’s hard not to feel that suffering has been reduced to spectacle. The Passion offered a redemptive context for its brutality that seems lacking here. Gibson is still seeking life amid death, but the balance is off.

The final showdown between Jaguar Paw and his detestable archrival is brilliantly orchestrated. But then comes a moment when the bad guy is not quite dead, but not long for this life… and, as he looks up at the hero, a thin jet of blood spurts from the side of his laid-open head, pulsing with his heartbeat. Does anyone want or need to see that?

Jenn Wright (Past the Popcorn):

Apocalypto avoids a common trap that modern treatments of ancient cultures often fall into: portraying them overly reverently, as sober, deep, and rather bland and humorless. Unfortunately, Gibson has wandered too far on the other side, thrusting upon ancient Mayans the locker-room man-boy humor most often associated with low budget sitcoms and ’80s frat-boy flicks. It is fairly obvious that Gibson’s goal with his latest work was not to paint a picture of Mayan life and culture, but to make a modern chase movie set in ancient Central America, subtitles and all. It’s one thing to hear raunchy humor in English; it’s quite another to hear it in Yucatec and then see it printed in English across the bottom of the screen.

Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk):

… the filmmaker gives his detractors plenty of additional evidence to bolster their claim that he has an unseemly obsession with violence.What’s missing this time is a larger context for the graphic images to which “Apocalypto” viewers are subject. No central theological debate, as in “The Passion of the Christ.” No ties to European ancestry and national pride, as in “Braveheart.” No, “Apocalypto” is a savage, repellent film that raises serious questions about Gibson’s interest in the worst kinds of human suffering.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today):

Gibson, as usual, finds himself in the middle; he is a sadist who rubs our faces in cinematic violence, and he is also a masochist who figures the best way to deal with the violence he sees in the world is to accept it and absorb it somehow. But where The Passion gave his admirers an easy out—between Jesus taking the pain and his enemies inflicting it, we side with the pain-taking, no question—Apocalypto is harder to pin down. One man, who is clearly meant to be a role model of sorts, faces his own death with incredible resolve, betraying no emotion and barely any suffering. But Jaguar Paw must fight back, at least to save his family, so the film takes a few steps back to the revenge-seeking ways of Braveheart and other Gibson flicks.

It will be interesting to see what Christian movie buffs in particular make of this film. When The Passion came out, there was much speculation that Gibson had become “one of us,” and there were many requests for Gibson to follow it up with a movie about the Maccabean revolt, Saint Francis, or any of a number of other biblical and religious subjects. Instead, with a budget rumoured to be over $70 million—much of it amassed from The Passion’s profits—Gibson has made a bloody flick about death and social decay in a pagan culture, and he hints ever so obliquely that the world has not fared any better under we Christians. After watching Apocalypto, some people may find they cannot watch The Passion the way they used to.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service):

What Gibson does do impressively is re-create the physical world of the Mayans with its exotic sights and sounds, spectacle and savagery. The intoxicating imagery and human drama, however, are undermined by so much gore that, even if historically accurate, the cumulative result registers as gratuitous.


And then, in the mainstream press, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times (thanks to Sara Zaar for pointing this out) writes:

Gibson unblushingly intends “Apocalypto” as a clarion call warning modern man to watch his step or risk following the Mayas into decline and near-extinction. To this end he opens the story with a famous quote from historian Will Durant about the fall of Rome: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

This is all well and good, but the reality of “Apocalypto” is that this film is in fact Exhibit A of the rot from within that Gibson is worried about. If our society is in moral peril, the amount of stomach-turning violence that we think is just fine to put on screen is by any sane measure a major aspect of that decline. Mel, no one in your entourage is going to tell you this, but you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. A big part.

And now, at First Things, Anthony Sacramone :

Much attention has been paid to Gibson’s allusions to contemporary events as the controlling referent for Apocalypto. Here he is in a Time article back in March: “The fearmongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys.” Oh-kay. In any event, the film works on its own terms, regardless. So whatever you think of Mel Gibson, his beliefs, or his drunken rant, give Apocalypto a chance. It’s not a question of whether Gibson deserves it; if you love cinema, then you deserve it.

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  • Anonymous

    This comment is a little late to the game, but I got the book and am half way through. Let me qualify my comments by saying, I love Anne Lamott’s writing. Being a native northern Californian, and one year apart in age, I feel like I’ve breathed the same air of anarchy. However, I just completed a chapter on the right of all women to kill their unborn children, which she refers to as zygotes. And then a chapter on how she assisted a man in his suicide to escape his terminal illness a little sooner, with a less pain. And, even though she claims to no longer hate Pres. Bush; her newfound grace reads a bit thin.

    At some point in our Christian walk, there has to be a touchstone of authority. Anne seems to have none outside herself. Her own thoughts are her authority. I knew she was not pro-life, I knew she’d had abortions, but the tone in this volume was more militant than Traveling Mercies. I find it all terribly sad. Add to that, that I really don’t feel the same creativity in her writing. There is a lot of reused, rehashed material. I feel literarily ripped off, as well as, spiritually.

  • andrew

    yeah, she’s an interesting character. i heard her speak the last time she was in seattle, and she seemed rather vitriolic toward the pres. i’m always a bit annoyed when good writers let their politics govern their writing (another example would be david james duncan).

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Well, we all have things to learn, and most of us have struggled with hate… or at least ill will… toward someone else at some point.

    It sounds like directly addresses this issue in the new book.

    Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a treasure, and I find her to be refreshingly honest, genuine, and thoughtful, even though I disagree with her from time to time.

  • M. Cruz

    I enjoyed some of her writing, but I was horrified to hear this woman was a Christian as I saw her hatred for the President.

  • SolShine7

    Woo hoo! Lamott is one of my favorites.

  • Justin

    Jeffery, I will admit that you made some really good points in your follow up post. You are one of the few christian thinkers out there that I truly respect. You and I may disagree on certians things, but that does not change my immense respect for what you do.

    I saw Apocalypto last night, and I really enjoyed it. I think Gibson captured the Mayans very well. I honestly did not consider any of the violence to be indulgent or inappropiate. I think comments like “Gibson is a sadist” or some of Christan’s comments are pretty ignorant.

    He made pretty strong comments about the Passion, but never bothored to see it, thus making his opinions pointless.

    I understand not wanting to see that kind of violence, but to say that it didn’t happen to Christ is pretty debatable I would say. Yes it it Gibson’s personal vision of the events, but does that make it wrong?

    Since none of us were actually there to say how brutal it really was (and in my mind its always been pretty horrific), how can we then chastise Gibson for voicing his views?

    Christian, I have alot of things I would like to say to you sir, however I cannot voice them here. Suffice to say that I strongly disagree with about 99% of what you said. I would love to talk with you about them, just not on a blog site. So if you wish, send me an email sometime at justinmcleod1979@gmail.com

  • Christian

    Or I could use one of my tried-to-forget-’em nicknames: “Half-pint,” “sassy,” or “C.”

    Nah, I’ll go with my full name. I appreciate your addition of “M.” Puts me in a Fritz Lang mood.

  • Christian M.

    Sorry! Haven’t seen your posts. How about if I post as “Christian M.” in the future.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet


    Yikes, I had no idea I had TWO of you commenting. I’ll have to be careful to distinguish between the two of you as I comb back through past comments. I hadn’t realized you were different people.

    Ah well. As I’ve always said, Christians can surprise you.

  • Christian Hamaker

    I just wanted to clarify that although the Christian above agrees with much of what I thought of “Apocalypto,” he ain’t me, and I ain’t him. I’ve posted as “Christian” before, but for the sake of clarity, I’ll use my last name here, and from here on out.

  • Christian

    I had a big problem with The Passion, and chose not to reward Gibson for his own dubious “passions.” It was his personal vision of violence and torture that he imposed on the biblical narrative for his own purposes. The Passion is not a biblically accurate view of the suffering of Jesus, and certainly not one any of the biblical writers described. I did not want my understanding of the words of Scripture shaped and mangled by a filmmaker of questionable motive and unproven Christian testimony. Now the images of The Passion have replaced, for many Christians, the plain words of Scripture. Why? Because we were willing to be duped by the hype that this was an “important” film. And just as an aside, did any Christian missions or ministries benefit from the hundreds of millions that Gibson made from our willing capitulation to his hype? If they did, I have never heard about them.

    So, because I believe I was right in refusing to see The Passion, I can ask, out loud, in complete astonishment and candor…why in the world would any thinking Christian choose to pay God’s good money to see Apocalypto?! Gibson is certifiably pathological in his thirst for violence, and yet many film reviewers, some even Christian, will still feel compelled to say this is an “important” film (so they will be seen as important reviewers to their peers, perhaps). If important means it will be remembered as the film that broke another barrier for graphic violence, so more films could go even further, then it’s “important” only to dark side of the spiritual realm, not the light. Paul says in Ephesians we should not even speak about what the wicked do in darkness, but in our day and time darkness is entertainment, and we pay to sit in darkness for two hours to experience vicariously what God condemns and died for. It’s nuts!!! And what’s worse, taking this position will be viewed as silly by many modern Christians who choose to watch anything and everything that any pagan puts on a screen because they are adults and it’s just entertainment. There’s no question for me that Gibson is part of the moral freefall that the LA Times writer rightly pinned on him. But guess what…we are, too, whenever we reward films that rip and tear the moral fabric of our country. It’s pretty near tatters now, and will be worse in another generation.

    And while I’m ranting, I am so tired of hearing the argument that the Bible is full of sex and violence, so that somehow justifies our watching it and “appreciating” it in a film. God revealed himself in the written word because it is the realm of “truth” and ideas. We interact with the truth about sexuality and violence in the words of Scripture and our minds are able to determine right and wrong. God did not reveal his truth in a Holy DVD for reason. Image deals in the realm of impression, perception, and emotion. A strong image or impression, which is always subjective and biased to the image-makers viewpoint, formed from a film has the power to override conceptual, propositional, and even divinely revealed truth. I hope I don’t have to justify this with any of many examples. It’s just the way it is. That’s why film is so stinking powerful, and can be important, but even more so, it can be dangerous, and overwhelmingly deceptive. Scripture is not dangerous. It is truth. We are to “speak the truth in love” (propositionally), and that is what makes us mature. We “renew our minds” with truth, to become like Christ. Is it any wonder that this new generation, raised on a gluttonous diet of video and images, rejects absolute truth and is “reconstructing” truth in its own image? You don’t have to read between the lines to understand why we are rapidly entering a postchristian era.

    Skip Apocalypto. Don’t reward Gibson’s pathology. The man is sick. Refuse to be entertained by darkness. Read the Bible. Let God’s truth judge the “importance” of any film or filmmaker. Be light in the darkness.

    Rant out.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Yes, but the Bible’s storytelling is also full of inappropriate sexula behavior and all manner of sin.

    Just because the Bible is “chock full of violent imagery” doesn’t mean that anything goes, and all violent imagery is okay. The Bible’s “violent imagery” plays a meaningful part in its storytelling. It’s not gratuitous. It’s not there for our entertainment.

    What we must discern is whether or not the violent in Apocalypto contributes meaningfully to the whole, or if it is gratuitous, merely included for sensation and shock.

    Several discerning Christian film critics who count themselves as admirers of some of Gibson’s past work are saying that the violence, and the crass humor as well, are excessive here, contributing nothing more to the story and its meaning, but merely shocking us. That kind of thing can increase an audience’s appetite for the grotesque. It can also interfere with the audience’s apprehension of the story and its valuable ideas.

    As soon as we say, “Gee, it’s in the Bible, so it’s okay,” we’re in real trouble.

    And as for “needing to see violence in order to wake up,” well… excessively violent movies are playing in theaters every week, and they’re doing more harm than good. I can’t say I’ve seen a wave of moral awakening since Saw opened in theaters.

    Some of the films that have been the most persuasive and powerful for me about the nature of violence have been films that focused on the damage done by violence, rather than those that just shove our faces into it.

    >>The christians had no issue with the violence in the Passion, and yet now their chief complaint with his new movie is the amount of blood and gore.<<

    As someone who published excerpts of other Christians’ thoughts on The Passion for weeks and weeks, I can tell you that all kinds of Christians “had issues” with the violence in The Passion. And here their chief complaint is not that Apocalypto is violence, but that the violence is excessive. You need to read more carefully.

    >>We watch the news and hear nothing but stories of murder, rape, car wrecks and theft. This is the sad bleak America that we live in. Perhaps showing how grusome violence really is, may wake us up just a little bit.<<

    Well, by your own testimony it would sound like the news shows us plenty of evidence to wake us up. I don’t see how films that are indulgently violent is going to help things.

    >>I look at the situation in the middle east, and it truly saddens me. So many innocent people are being hurt, for the sake of what?<<

    Which situation? There are many. Are you saying that most of the violence is being committed by Americans? Are you saying that torture inflicted by Americans is the only problem? Would you suggest that we could solve the problem of terrorism by showing the terrorists a bunch of hyperviolent movies in order to “wake them up”?

  • Justin

    Last I checked, the Bible is pretty chock full of violent imagery.

  • Ellen Collison

    To me, it seems pretty clear that MG’s attraction to extreme violence is a sign of deep personal problems. If I were in a situation where I was working with a kid who had such a bent toward graphic depictions of violence and/or ultra-violent storylines, I’d assume that the kid in question needed serious help.

    am not meaning to play amateur psychologist here, but how or why anyone would try to justify MG’s apparent love of violent visual images is beyond me.

  • Justin

    I think people are being a bit too harsh concerning the violence in this movie.

    The christians had no issue with the violence in the Passion, and yet now their chief complaint with his new movie is the amount of blood and gore.

    I tend to agree with what Levi said about america needing to see the violence in order to wake us up.

    I look at the situation in the middle east, and it truly saddens me. So many innocent people are being hurt, for the sake of what? We see it all on the news and we dismiss it because we see them as threats. We hear about torture and mistreatment, and we dont blink an eye.

    We watch the news and hear nothing but stories of murder, rape, car wrecks and theft.

    This is the sad bleak America that we live in. Perhaps showing how grusome violence really is, may wake us up just a little bit.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know… maybe Americans need to see stuff like this. We live in a culture where we kill thousands of featues and don’t feel guilty because we don’t do it in public like the Myans. We fight wars everywhere in the world except on our own contenient. We stand by while other nations starve.

    I’ve been trying to figure out why his films are so brutal and I’m thinking – maybe Gibson’s trying to rub our faces in it? Maybe America needs to understand violence like this?

    I’m not sure if I agree with anything that I just wrote – but it springs to mind…

  • Anonymous

    There was an interesting review of Apocalypto at First Things. For what it’s worth.

  • Sara Z.

    Did you catch Kenneth Turan’s review on NPR this morning? Pretty much agrees with what you’ve quoted here, but even more pointed about MG’s responsibility to…the world, I guess.