Some people look for patterns in life; the desire to have all of one's experiences tied together in a neat arch-narrative. This weekend is all about my love life - this month is all about my cooking skills - this year is all about alcohol consumption. People pluck an obsession and use it as the prism to view everything that happens to them: one time some years ago, a friend informed me that his entire week had revolved around pants.

I don't look for themes in the real world, but sometimes themes come to me. And this weekend, I found a theme, the presence and absence of racism in unexpected places. This weekend, I saw Apocalypto and Blood Diamond. Today, I will consider the first of those films.

I'm not going to lie: for all my honest arguments in favor of Mel Gibson's skill as a craftsman, my actual reason for seeing Apocalypto was because I wanted to bask in the crazy. An anti-Semitic homophobe making a film about how the Mayans got what was coming to them? A splendid time is guaranteed for all! Providing that they all love schadenfreude.

I was wrong. While far - very far - from being a masterpiece, Apocalypto is not a raving heap of anti-pagan crazy. It's just an action movie, and a fairly solid one at that.

The first bit of myth: the ad campaign, and even the opening of the film, with the portentious Will Durant epigram, "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within," seem to suggest that this film is all about how those horrible pre-Christians were too busy slaughtering each other to notice the Spanish arrive, and thank God that White Men saved them from themselves. That's really not the film's game at all. It's about two tribes, the city people and the jungle people, and how the city people burn the jungle people's village, rape the women, and sacrifice the men to sky gods.

Really, it's pretty much a do-over of Braveheart: a noble country-dweller just trying to live his life is savaged by the Ee-vil Urbanites, and he revenges himself upon them in needlessly bloody ways. It wasn't racist when it was white-on-white, and it's disingenuous to say that it should be any different for Mayan-on-forest tribe. The main character, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), is never presented as incapable or idiotic or anything less than upright and praisworthy. This is a very conservative film (that's not fair: it's reactionary in the black helicopters sense), but not because it is invested in the inferiority of non-whites.

Skip this paragraph if you're one of those spoiler-averse types: to be fair, the movie ends with a deus ex machina wherein the arrival of the Spanish saves our plucky hero from near certain death. But this hero, who (again) has never been shown to be wrong in any way, responds to the Spanish by running away with his family. It's not "racist" insofar as we have no reason to assume that the white people aren't going to e.g. slaughter everyone and kill the survivors with smallpox. As to whether the Mayans "deserve" it, the epigram notwithstanding, there's no reason to view them as anything other than cartoon baddies opposed to Our Hero. (I really just hate the Spaniards because they mess up my Braveheart model: if the forest tribe is the Scots and the Mayans are the English, the Spanish are like, William Wallace's dead wife in the torture scene. Or something).

Now, I can certainly see that this might have been a different film once upon a time before a certain night of drinking, but I didn't see that cut: I saw this cut, and this cut simply doesn't ring any of my racist alarms. And I know it doesn't, because 24 hours ago I was trying to figure out how to grapple with Apocalypto, when a friend all but asked me: didn't I want it to be racist? And I did, and it's not, and that's enough digital ink spilled over that topic.

So, 500 words on what the film isn't; how about I discuss what the film is? It's a rollicking action movie, no more and no less. There's not much plot to speak of, just a basic escape narrative, and it is taut: the film runs over two hours, but I could hardly believe I'd sat for half of that when it was all done. Gibson, whatever his countless personal flaws, is a great filmmaker (in honesty: it wouldn't be so necessary to hate The Passion of the Christ if it weren't a masterpiece of craftsmanship), and Apocalypto is thrilling from top to bottom. There's the pullquote, if anyone wants it. It's an adventure movie of the old school, excepting that the old school didn't have such access to such realistic gore effects.

Braveheart, The Passion and this: Mel Gibson sure does love his movies about the human body being subjected to the most grotesque indignities (Apocalypto falls between those two on the ewwww scale). This is not quite as pornographic as his last film, not even as pornographic as we see with our good friend Tony Scott; but there is a great deal of it and it's totally pointless. I'm not a moral scold, and I'd rather see bloody, consequence-filled violence than sanitized PG-13 violence; but I'm not certain that the story Gibson wished to tell absolutely required the scene of a jaguar eating a man's face, or the repeated imagery of hearts being pulled out of human and non-human bodies. Or the bit where a man is tricked into eating raw tapir gonads. Or the yada, yada, yada, we don't have all day. I'm not a psychologist, and it's not fair of me to start guessing at what drives Gibson to these bloody ends, but it's not the best night at the movies you've ever had.

As with The Passion, a big part of Gibson's aim with Apocalypto was to recreate a vanished world in exact detail. I can't say if he's done that accurately, other than to point out that there was a Mayan expert on set, and his contribution consisted of advising Gibson on probabilities. If there was no reason to believe something couldn't have been the case, it was generally left in. Mel Gibson needs to meet my friend, Occam's Razor.

But let us give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that the film is largely accurate. This makes Apocalypto a rather liberal-minded ethnography, which makes me feel dirty just to think let alone write. Of all things, I found myself thinking of the Australian film Ten Canoes as I watched this film: it shows us the details of a world that is totally alien to the presumptive audience without goggling at the OMG THEY ARE TEH SAVAGE LOL! of it all. Jaguar Paw's village is not at all our world, but it is not treated as an Exotic Other or exploited really at all; we pick up the details as we go along, and by the time we get to the Mayan city, our sense of fear is born not because that city is unlike our world, but because it is unlike the now-familiar world of the jungle. Gibson is no Herzog (well, duh), using the native people of the jungle as a tool for keeping the white audience off-kilter; and he doesn't treat them with the politically correct neo-Rousseauvian "noble savage" filter. They're just people, until events ruin their lives. It's frighteningly isolationist, but it's not exploitative. (And if there's an actual polemic to be read out of the film, I don't think it's a Christian or colonial one, I think that it really is the idea that we're all much better living in huts far away from the government).

I really wish I hadn't thought of all these things while I was watching the movie. At heart, it's a 1940's serial with blood and subtitles. It's quite probably the best-paced film I've seen this year, although that's a hard thing to quantify. It's shallow spectacle, but well-made shallow spectacle (remember last December, King Kong and Memoirs of a Geisha? It's kind of hard not to be enthusiastic about Apocalypto). Certainly, it's not such a tedious slog as say, Blood Diamond...

...but that is a story for another time.

7/10