From what I’ve read, Apocalypto allows itself some anachronisms. Set in Central America, it reflects certain aspects of the history of that region, some of which were separated by centuries, though they’re all contemporaneous here. Still, as such things go, I gather it is if anything more accurate than the typical movie set long ago and far away.
Due to the inconsistencies, you can’t date the movie very accurately. But the descriptions I’ve seen generally choose to place it in the early 1500s.
A hunting party from a forest-dwelling Indian tribe kills a tapir and eats it (raw). They are depicted somewhere between “regular guys” and “noble people who are closer to the land and thus have a more natural and defensible philosophy than modern folks.” In keeping with the former, there’s much informality and easy conversation—for one thing, they spend a lot of time engaged in good-natured ribbing and practical jokes directed toward one of their party who is experiencing certain embarrassing problems impregnating his wife—which really is not much different from what you might expect if some 21st century suburban Americans were off on a camping trip. In keeping with the latter, the elders especially make periodic profound and dignified utterances (showing how much they respect the natural world and all that) consistent with Political Correctness Rule 14a, Subsection 3 stipulating how it is now obligatory to depict Indians in movies.
So a combination of “Hey, they’re just like us!” and “No, wait a minute, they’re actually better than us!”
They have an ominous encounter with another, unfamiliar tribe—a dejected and defeated-looking bunch of stragglers who ask, and are granted, safe passage through their territory. They state, though without giving any details, that their tribe has been “ravaged.” They are apparently the only survivors, and are now looking for somewhere new to try to rebuild their tribe.
We’re able to infer soon enough what happened to them, as it happens to the original tribe (i.e., the hunting party Indians’ tribe). A large hostile force—evidently meant to be Mayans or some Mayan-like group—swoops down on their village and massacres the bulk of the people. They don’t bother with most of the kids, leaving them to fend for themselves as best they can in the future, and they spare a minority of the adults, whom they instead take back with them as bound captives.
Are they to be slaves? That looks like a real possibility, especially when we see that back at their capital or wherever they end up, there are scores of laborers working at building massive stone structures—and coughing up blood and no doubt slowly dying from all the dust they inhale as a byproduct of their labor. But, no, most of these folks are intended as human sacrifices.
It seems the Mayans are undergoing a period of great travail. Disease is decimating their people, and their crops are failing. So in response they do the only logical thing: Dress up in goofy costumes and kill a bunch of foreigners.
So it turns out modern man does not have a monopoly on savagery. We just kill far more efficiently and to an enormously greater magnitude. But I’m confident that had they had the means to do so, our predecessors from any time in human history could have run up just as impressive body counts.
The main character Indian from the original tribe—Jaguar Paw—manages to escape the clutches of the murderous Mayans, and scampers back toward his village to see if there are any survivors to join (which he hopes include his pregnant wife and child, whom he left hidden). But a large number of angry Mayans are in hot pursuit.
Apocalypto is in many respects very well done as a conventional action movie. The action and suspense are fast and furious, and the acting and dialogue are if anything better than is typical for such movies (which I know is faint praise).
I did enjoy it to some extent on that level, though my enjoyment was limited by its insistence on clinging to the conventions of the genre. That is, you know the main character is going to survive and prevail in the end, that in order to do so he’s going to have to go through many terrible ordeals and conflicts—each of which would have about a 99% chance of killing a person if this were real life—and that he’s not going to turn out in any way to be a bad guy. So you’re manipulated to root for him, repeatedly to fear for him, and ultimately to bask in his coming out on top.
You’ll be interested to know that you can be run through with a spear—go in your back and come out your chest—not to mention take a direct hit with an arrow, and survive. You’ll be a little worse for wear initially—staggering about and only borderline functional—but as soon as it’s inconvenient for you to not be able to do things like run at full speed, wield a weapon, and win at hand-to-hand combat, even those effects will quickly fade away. (If you’re the hero, that is. Otherwise you just die immediately.)
Ironically, the one movie that actually accurately depicts such action scenes is a comedy: The Big Lebowski. Walter’s scheme to pass a fake bundle to the kidnappers and then to leap out of a moving car with a gun to capture and subdue them, works out to precisely the degree it would in reality, which is to say not in the slightest. But in every “serious” action movie, such as Apocalypto, the execution of that kind of plan runs like clockwork, and only bad guys and extras get killed.
The movie ends with the characters gazing out at the sea and observing the arrival of what we as viewers know are the Europeans. I immediately thought of the line from Maus, from the author’s father, who, after recounting unimaginably horrific travails during the Holocaust, stunningly implies that what he is to recount next is much worse by telling his son, “And here my troubles began.”
I mean, if these folks thought they had it rough dealing with wild animals and wild Mayans and such, they’re about to find out that those were the good old days.