It's a funny thing, but once someone - Mel Gibson, Jerry Falwell
, whoever - shows themselved unequivocally to the world as a bigot
, more words tend to get spent in denying that one takes that fact seriously than in condemnation of their views. You know what I'm talking about: all that "oh, it's not because Bernard Manning
's a racist, I just don't find his jokes funny", or "David Irving
is just wrong, it's a point of academic principle". That sort of thing. It's as if calling someone a racist, sexist or whatever is more shameful than actually being one. Few people want to go on the record with such accusations, and those who do tend to reap a whirlwind.
So when this movie came out, after Mel Gibson embarrassed himself and the world by ripping off an anti-semitic rant pretty much directly into the media, I was really hoping it will do well and save everybody the trouble of endlessly discussing the reasons why. Doesn't seem to have worked.
Was this movie popular with audiences?
Not very is the short answer. In its opening weekend it grossed 15 million dollars in the US. Compare this to some other action/adventure movies from the last few years, such as The Last Samurai ($24.2m), Once Upon a Time in Mexico ($23.4m) or Spider Man 3 (a whopping $151m).
To put it in more human terms, at $12 a ticket that means about 1.25 million people chose to go see Apocalypto when it first opened. Ten times as many - more than the population of New York! - were curious about Blockbuster Spidey, and almost twice as many wanted to see the less commercial, cheaper and generally more off-the-wall conclusion to the Mariachi trilogy.
It seems that not many people wanted to go see Apocalypto. But maybe it was still all worth it...
Was this movie a commercial success?
Well, let's see. The aforementioned $15m in first weekend takings represents 37% of the total budget of the movie, estimated by IMDB at $40m (not sure where Mel sank the other $35m of his own personal money that no one would give him cause everyone hates him). Viewed strictly from the myopic vantage point of the bottom line that movie execs are notorious for, that is bad news. They will have to wait for the return on their investment until such a time – if – later ticket sales, international sales and DVD revenues make up the shortfall.
That's not the end of the world, but it is disappointing compared to the release weekend bonanza of Once Upon a Time (80% of a $29m budget), or even a more down-to-earth 58% for Spider Man Goes Emo. Granted, it's a runaway success compared to Tom Cruise's floppalicious 17%-of-budget take on the first weekend of The Last Samurai. But that just goes to show that huge budgets ($140) and huge names (Cruise) don't guarantee you success in the movie business, even before you've jumped on any sofas or abused any ethnic groups.
Did the critics destroy this movie?
I'm not sure where the idea comes from that the critics slated Apocalypto. I read about 20 reviews from different countries, and while most of them made ample mention of the graphic and potentially gratuitous violence of the film, by all means not all were negative. For less anecdotal evidence I turned to Rotten Tomatoes, the website cited above for the rather provocative quote from Bruce Bennett. It shows a rating of "66% Fresh" for this picture. That means that only one third of the online reviews analysed by the website were so bad as to be considered rotten tomatoes.
Two thirds of critics liking your picture ain't bad; in fact, that's only as good as Tom Cruise and Robert Rodrigues got for their respective movies. The hugely successful Spider Man 3 settled in the mid to low sixties on RT. A Scanner Darkly, which gained the same inexplicable reputation for being "critically acclaimed" as Apocalypto did for being "critically panned", is in fact only a couple of percentage points above it on the tomatometer.
Anyway, there is evidence to suggest that critical acclaim is not a necessary condition for commercial success (like we didn’t know that already!). Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End grossed a behemoth $139m in its first weekend with only a 47% tomato rating. More than half the critics thought the movie stank – but the viewing public chose to make up their minds for themselves.
Aha, but it hasn’t won any Oscars – people had it in for the thing!
Oh, come on. You really want to go into the history of movies robbed on the award circuit?
You do. OK then.
Robert Altman – arguably the best native born American director of his generation - never got an Oscar. Martin Scorcese only got his for a remake of a Hong Kong flick. Helen Mirren lost out on the statuette for possibly the best performance of her career to a seven minute cameo by Judy Dench. Denzel Washington was snubbed as The Hurricane, an epochal biopic; the Academy realised its mistake and plonked the bald guy on him for a mediocre performance in a run of the mill bad cops drama the same year that Russel Crowe was nominated for A Beautiful Mind and Sean Penn for I Am Sam, not to mention Will Smith in Ali.
And so it goes. Every year film fans throw peanuts at the television in anger, irate at what they think is the wrong name coming out of the envelope. Not that I think Apocalypto could have been terribly robbed: it lost out on the Sound Mixing award to the operatic Dreamgirls, and just missed out on the Achievements in Makeup nod to Pan’s Labyrinth. The makeup in Apocalypto was impressive, but Pan’s Labyrinth looked absolutely spectacular – unlucky perhaps, but not a glaringly unfair decision.
Hang on, so you’ve shown that Apocalypto hasn’t done very well, but why not?
Disclosure time: I haven’t seen the movie. So I don’t have a personal opinion on its relative merits. All I’m trying to do is show that it fared relatively badly in the entertainment marketplace by using freely available figures. I am prepared to stick my neck out and advance a few theories though.
So, in the language of multiple choice tests, I shall leave you to tell me which of the following reasons was pivotal in making a less than stellar success of Mel Gibson’s latest venture:
- The film’s R rating limited its accessibility to the kind of family audience that tends to make the big bucks for sandal epics, historical dramas and fantasy adventures
- The subtitled Mayan dialogue put English speaking audiences off; foreign language flicks rarely do well commercially in the States
- An anti-Christian Zionist conspiracy
- Lack of star power, a solid franchise or popular culture relevance acted as a disincentive to mass audiences
- It’s not a very good movie