Apocalypto – a birder’s review

Because this 2006 movie did not feature Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, or Ewan MacGregor, my wife had no desire to accompany me to the movies to see it on the big screen. I finally rented it yesterday and watched the DVD on our 13″ screen at home.

It was, of course, an awesome spectacle. If I was teaching a course on pre-colonial MesoAmerican culture, I would definitely show this film in class. It’s easy to focus on anachronisms and incongruities (as I’m about to do), but important to recognize that, overall, Gibson was successful in bringing to life a culture and a time that no living person has seen. In that regard, it was a fantastic experience, and I wish I had seen on the big screen.

Now I’ll start nit-picking.

It’s a movie, so the storyline is a little hoakey, but come on! The hero is saved by an eclipse, a jaguar, a waterfall, a tapir trap, and the sight of conquistadors making first landfall. His “First Blood” revenge on his assailants wouldn’t have been quite so obvious if he hadn’t been covered in black goo, reminiscent of Stallone or Schwarzeneggar. While this is happening, his wife and son survive several days in a well due to the good graces of two monkeys to fight to the death (almost!) right when they need one to fall in for them. Then, just as she’s about to drown, she gives birth to a bouncing baby boy. That was a lot of stuff that had to happen in a very short period of time, and it probably ruined the movie for a lot of people. It’s almost like they had done such a beautiful job making something like a docu-drama that it was a shame when they turned it into an amusement park ride.

Obvious puppets – I don’t know who did their “creature effects” for the tapir, the mauling jaguar, and the young baby snatched by the bad guys, but these looked really fake in a couple of shots.

Didn’t make sense – In the opening sequence, the hunters kill a tapir and distribute its most precious organs to various members of their party for instantaneous ceremonial celebration. The big guy who can’t seem to father any children with his wife is given the testicles, and this is seen as a humiliating development for him. I’d have thought that, if anything, those guys would’ve been fighting for the chance to eat them, but that’s not how it was portrayed.

Birds and other animals –

The tapir was either a lowland or Baird’s tapir, which would be appropriate for the region, but I’m pretty sure it was a female, and therefore not really in keeping with the scene described above. Tapirs are related to horses, not pigs, so why they used pig squeals during the hunt scene, I don’t know.

The jaguar was, of course, black. There are some areas of their range where melanistic jaguars are fairly common, but I bet they used a black one here to make it look scarier. I’m pretty sure that their “jaguar” mother was a black leopard, and I’m almost positive that her kitten was a young leopard, but I need to see those scenes again to be sure.

The monkeys seemed to work. Black howlers do occur in Central America. I’m not sure how far north spider monkeys get, but they could have obtained one through trade with people farther south.

Birdwise there were two obvious gaffes: The easier one to miss came from the spectacular headdress worn by the Mayan emperor – it contained Lady Amherst Pheasant feathers, a species native to China.

But the ridiculous one was this: At one point, we see the men moving along a river from our vantage point on the other side. Right in front of our view, a small heron takes off. They used a Cattle Egret! Not only would a Cattle Egret not go near a rocky, rushing river, but everybody knows Cattle Egrets aren’t native to the Americas! Cattle Egrets are thought to have dispersed from the West African coast to the Venezuelan coast in the 1930s, not the 1390s.

So yet again, Hollywood’s attempt to add realism with birds fails miserably. Why don’t they just ask an ornithologist? We’re cheap, and we like to help with stuff like this. Gibson spent a lot of time talking to archaeologists and anthropologists, 5 minutes with an ornithologist would’ve helped a lot!

This entry was posted in birding, birds/nature, editorial, movies & tv. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Apocalypto – a birder’s review

  1. Sean says:

    Hey Ornothologist Guy – this is the world history ‘expert’ from Buckingham Drive. Well – this is a great movie – visually stunning! A great movie to watch and get lost in. HOwever, that is where the fun ends. Of course, Gibson takes GREAT liberties in the history of the people and culture of central america – I will stop there. If I were to show parts of this movie in the world history 1 class, I would have to provide a running dialogue of all of the historical in-accuracies of the film. The last shot of the European conquistadors coming ashore (with the cross as the excuse in the background) was the last straw for me. Typical hollywood bluster – too bad. Gibson has a great idea to showcase the wonderful cultural attributes of the Mayan culture. Instead, we are left with the impression that there culture was blood thirsty, power hungry savages – with only the socially darwinist Spanish to finally civilize them

    Say hi to all – and let me know how that new ax sounds – recording anything yet?


  2. I knew about the conquistador thing going in, so I was expecting the worst, but it actually didn’t offend me too much. I got the sense that they were all screwed by the arrival of the white man – not just the bad guys – and that is historically accurate! Anyway, I’d take that running dialogue over this movie than the crap they gave us in school any day of the week . . .

    Love the guitar! I got a chance to plug in last week, and it sounded great. I will get back to recording eventually, and hope to send you all an audio “thank you”! Thanks too for checking the blog!


  3. Batman says:

    Hello Dr. Ornithology,

    Did you know that in Ratatoulle (sp?), Hollywood went to some lengths to get actual Italian native songbirds? Yup, there was some attempt to “ask the experts” for audio recordings of actual Italian type songbirds to include in the movie. Looks like Disney at least tried. I suspect that if you watch the credits you’ll find some reference to your old stomp’n grounds.

    I’m anxiously awaiting for the video to check it out.


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