Mel Gibson's action-adventure about the waning days of the Mayan civilization stars unknowns and is entirely subtitled, yet it's surprisingly accessible. It's also a failure as anything more than an action film.
Gibson opens with a heady quote from philosopher William Durant—"A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within"—but thankfully disposes with pretension thereafter, offering instead an occasionally entertaining but frequently maddening tour of Mayan society from the worms-eye view of some unfortunate jungle-dwellers on their way to a sacrificial altar."
Beautifully and vividly photographed as this historical "epic" may be, it centers on characters who have no more idea of what's going on than the audience. You'll leave Apocalypto knowing little more about Mayan culture than you did already.
If Gibson has a point—in interviews he's mentioned something about the Iraq war—it has been obscured to the point of meaninglessness and is frequently ignored in favor of galling the audience. What remains is an onslaught of breathless, extremely gory fight and chase scenes that would, on their own, constitute either an hour or so of a gripping, unnerving film or one heinously bad dream.
Apocalypto isn't forgotten quite so easily as your average nightmare, but there isn't much in it worth remembering, either.