When Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto came out in 2006, mere months after Gibson’s liquor-fueled Waterloo on Malibu’s Pacific Coast Highway, the critical reaction was predictable. Gibson was labeled a “cinematic sadist” and the heir to Leni Riefenstahl. The pundits agreed that Apocalypto proved beyond doubt that its maker was a loon, if a talented one. The other, unifying point of consensus was less specious: that the film highlighted the influence on Gibson the filmmaker of the series that made him a star
Mad Max set the template for Gibson’s career as an actor. How many times would he go on to play men exacting grisly revenge on those who murdered his wife, daughter, son? No accident that Ridley Scott offered the role of Maximus to Gibson before Russell Crowe.
But even when Gibson moved behind the camera, Max’s shadow seemed inescapable. Apocalypto’s “heavies could stay in costume and stride into another Mad Max film”, said Todd McCarthy in Variety. Christopher Orr in The Atlantic described “a raiding party that bears a suspicious resemblance to refugees from The Road Warrior”. Even Fox News, a staunch defender of Gibson during the controversy surrounding his previous film, The Passion of the Christ, dubbed his new one “more Mad Max than Mayan”.
If the praise meted out to Apocalypto by critics was never less than begrudging, the reception from other filmmakers was ecstatic. Tarantino called it his favourite film of the year. So did Kanye West, whom one suspects sees in Mel Gibson something of a kindred (misunderstood) spirit. Danny Boyle, in typical Mancunian fashion, called Gibson’s film “barking mad but brilliant”, while Scorsese labelled the film “a vision”: “Many pictures today don’t go into troubling areas like this: the importance of violence in the perpetuation of what’s known as civilization. I admire Apocalypto for its frankness”.
George Miller, too, was vocal about his erstwhile protégé’s filmmaking chops. And while Gibson himself has been upfront about pilfering from the Miller playbook as far back as Braveheart, the shadow of Apocalypto is long over Fury Road. In an exhaustive piece on the film’s inception, Miller declared that his aim was to make the viewer feel like an explorer confronting an alien culture. “You wouldn’t understand initially what was going on, but you would never doubt the authenticity of, say, a native people’s behaviour”. Sound familiar? The world of Fury Road is closer to the Mayan world of Apocalypto than to our own, and both films are specifically about the dawn of new societies.
In Apocalypto, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is living in prelapsarian serenity with his pregnant wife and young son in a village deep in the jungle. Their idyll is interrupted by a marauding war party led by the fearsome Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), whose headpiece is a yawning animal jaw with long tusks repurposed for maximum intimidation. Zero Wolf’s berserkers subjugate the men, rape the women and leave the old people and children behind. The captives, including Jaguar Paw, are taken to a city to be offered up as human sacrifices.
This Mayan city, possibly Tenochtitlan though never identified, bears a striking resemblance to Miller’s Citadel in Fury Road. Thousands of fetid unfortunates swarm about at the foot of a giant temple, looking up at their ruler-benefactors. In both films, the top dogs are posited as gatekeepers of the elemental – the sun in Apocalypto, water in Fury Road. The Citadel in Miller’s film is presided over by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who wears a mask of bared horse teeth and holds cult-like sway over an army of War Boys; shaven-headed tyros daubed in white pigment, close cousins to Apocalypto’s lime-quarry slaves.
Fury Road, too, begins with a capture, with Max dragged out of his V8 and back to the Citadel. He breaks free and makes a run for it through labyrinthine tunnels, and our first sight of the Citadel is also his: Max bursts through a set of doors only to teeter on a void, high up in mountain rock, looking out over a valley of slaves.
Max’s solution to this dead-end will be familiar to anybody who’s seen Apocalypto. In Gibson’s film, Jaguar Paw escapes the city’s temples with his heart still miraculously in his chest, and retraces his steps through the jungle towards his family, who were left behind at the bottom of an empty well. With Zero Wolf in hot pursuit, Jaguar Paw reaches the crest of a waterfall and flings himself off it.
The physical trajectory of the characters in Fury Road echoes Jaguar Paw’s almost exactly: from A to B and back to A. In both films, our hero hurtles forward in a straight line, then turns around and does the same in the opposite direction. The difference is that, in Fury Road, Max isn’t really the hero; in fact you could remove him from the film and it would hardly change the plot. Max’s most heroic moment, when he seems willing to sacrifice himself for others, happens off-screen – the film seems actively to distance him.
Both films are visions of the apocalypse. Apocalypto opens with a quote from Will Durant: “a great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within”. In the societies conjured up by Miller and Gibson, systemic corruption reaps what it sows, and is toppled to make way for a new world order. The end of Fury Road is optimistic; a matriarchal culture seems in the ascendant. Whereas Apocalypto’s coda is blacker than pitch: the Spaniards arrive, and Jaguar Paw’s pursuers stop in their tracks, transfixed. Jaguar Paw and his family take the chance to escape. If you thought the last two hours were bad, suggests Gibson – just you wait.
Australian filmmakers have always been fond of the end of the world. Or at least the end of a world, and the chrysalis of another. Just last month Gawler boy Justin Kurzel premiered a new version of Macbeth, that classic story of regime change, at Cannes. It seems apposite that Australian directors are fascinated by the end-times – and by the costs of attempting to refashion a new world through fire and blood.