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Still, he likes to confound expectations--he wears a cross containing relics of martyred saints, but he can swear like a Quentin Tarantino character--and those who peg him as a reactionary may be surprised to learn that his new film sounds warnings straight out of liberal Hollywood's bible. Apocalypto, which Gibson loosely translates from the Greek as "a new beginning," was inspired in large part by his work with the Mirador Basin Project, an effort to preserve a large swath of the Guatemalan rain forest and its Maya ruins. Gibson and his rookie cowriter on Apocalypto, Farhad Safinia, were captivated by the ancient Maya, one of the hemisphere's first great civilizations, which reached its zenith about A.D. 600 in southern Mexico and northern Guatemala. The two began poring over Maya myths of creation and destruction, including the Popol Vuh, and research suggesting that ecological abuse and war-mongering were major contributors to the Maya's sudden collapse, some 500 years before Europeans arrived in the Americas.
Those apocalyptic strains haunt Apocalypto, which takes place in an opulent but decaying Maya kingdom, whose leaders insist that if the gods are not appeased by more temples and human sacrifices, the crops will die. But the writers hope that the larger themes of decline will be a wake-up call. "The parallels between the environmental imbalance and corruption of values that doomed the Maya and what's happening to our own civilization are eerie," says Safinia. Gibson, who insists ideology matters less to him than stories of "penitential hardship" like his Oscar-winning Braveheart, puts it more bluntly: "The fearmongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys."
But the project also fulfills Gibson's need for speed. The hunk who played Mad Max 27 years ago wants to "shake up the stale action-adventure genre," which he feels has been taken hostage by computer-generated imagery (CGI), stock stories and shallow characters. To rattle the cage, he says, "we had to think of something utterly different." The Mad Maya hero in Apocalypto is Jaguar Paw. His escape through the Mexican rain forest will "feel like a car chase that just keeps turning the screws," says Gibson, flashing one of his patented bug-eyed expressions. True to the no-pain, no-gain credo of his other films, Apocalypto seeks to deliver enough pre-Columbian punishment--like the decidedly non-CGI mauling of a character by an animal--to rival the medieval gore of Braveheart. "I get pretty banged up in some pretty awful ways," says film newcomer Rudy Youngblood, 25, the Comanche and Cree Indian from Texas who plays Jaguar Paw.
Gibson is betting the chase will feel even hairier thanks to a new digital camera system, Panavision's Genesis, that yields a "tremendous sensation of velocity," says cinematographer Dean Semler, who won an Oscar for Dances with Wolves. All the doom and zoom sound fun, but the ancient Maya are also called the Greeks of the New World--they invented the concept of zero, built astonishing cities and used a more complex calendar than ours. Gibson insists the glory gets its close-ups too. Says Richard Hansen, a Maya scholar at Idaho State University, head of the Mirador Basin Project and a consultant for Apocalypto: "This is by far the best treatment--the first treatment really--of the Maya any film has ever done. I'm amazed at the detail Mel's shooting for."