Last night I watched Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, and for the first time felt moved, moved rather deeply, by an action movie. It may seem an unlikely combination, Mel Gibson directing and co-writing a film on a decline of Mayan civilization. But he got something right – not necessarily the details (though the details seem OK according to some experts on Mayan culture) – but the feeling of it. On surface, this is no different than any other action movie – the protagonist is still being chased by the ‘bad guys’, running, climbing, dangling, fighting, leaping. The difference is that the meaning of the action is placed in the context that challenges our own understanding of what it means to survive.
Apocalypto is a meditation on fear. It confronts us with the stark reality of having to negotiate our continued presence or potential destruction in a world where the most grotesque cruelty will come not from the world of wild beasts but from the familiar hands of other humans, even those sharing one’s language and culture. In most action movies we feel indiscriminately tense that no harm should come to the one who is chased (we must still have hearts of prey to be so easily identified with the pursued and not the pursuer). In Apocalypto, the protagonist is teaching us how to negotiate fear so that death, if it were to come, is done as well as living. And finally, that running away and running toward may look alike, but are not.