The Number One Movie in America: Apocalypto
By Sean Collier
April 11, 2021
The moviegoing public was curious about “Apocalypto.” For, like, a minute. After that, the film vanished without a trace.
Mel Gibson, a ... let’s say “troubled” director, followed his 2004 megahit “The Passion of the Christ” with “Apocalypto,” a period epic set during the waning days of the Mayan empire. Like “Passion of the Christ,” it primarily uses a dead language for its dialogue; also like “Passion,” it’s a mix of historical accuracy, wild revisionism and alarmingly over-the-top violence.
Gibson was in the midst of the controversies that would come to define him, so there was a sense of morbid curiosity about his latest work — particularly when it became clear it would be as hyper-violent and controversial as, well, his own leaked phone calls. Moreover, though, it’s easy to forget what a massive hit “Passion of the Christ” was in 2004. The endlessly debated passion-play adaptation made more than $370 million and remains the top-grossing R-rated movie of all time (domestically).
Whatever Gibson did next was going to catch eyeballs; the controversy might have muted that curiosity, but it also might have played into it. Whatever the cause, “Apocalypto” climbed over a packed field to take the top spot upon its Dec. 8, 2006 debut. It held off a much more accessible debut, the broad romcom “The Holiday,” as well as a prestige hopeful, “Blood Diamond.” It knocked “Happy Feet” out of the top spot. For that weekend, it was a hit.
After that: Not so much.
The nosedive began the following weekend, when “Apocalypto” sank all the way to a 6th-place finish in its sophomore frame. It dipped below three debuts — “The Pursuit of Hapyness,” “Eragorn” and “Charlotte’s Web” — but also lost to two movies it had already defeated, “The Holiday” and “Happy Feet.” By the next weekend, it would be out of the Top 10 altogether, finishing 13th over the holiday weekend.
I guess no one wants to see gory human sacrifices on Christmas. Who knew?
Any box-office champ that spends a mere two weeks in the Top 10 is surprising; the nose-dive for “Apocalypto” is, on paper, stunning, considering the director’s resume. In the end, it barely scraped to $50.8 million, a smaller total than Gibson’s works from a decade prior (“Braveheart” made more than $75 million) and a decade later (his return, “Hacksaw Ridge,” managed $67 million).
Take away the context and the knowledge that Gibson had just made a megahit, however, and the only surprise is that “Apocalypto” ever topped the box-office at all. It’s fundamentally a curiosity, much more in line with arthouse freakouts and grindhouse terrors than mainstream filmmaking. It certainly has powerful sequences, but they are no fun at all to watch; it certainly builds a good amount of tension and suspense, but that’s almost incidental to Gibson’s perennial fascination with suffering, pain and brutality. (And it ends with a deus ex machina that reads as, if anything, kinda hilarious.)
“Apocalypto” is not a bad movie — in fact, it’s probably a good one. It just has no particular reason to exist. And, while a decent number of people turned up for a few days to gawk at the car crash, the novelty wore off in a hurry and has since been shuffled into obscurity.
Seems about right for this one.
“Apocalypto” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1977. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: In the confusing box office of 2020, an above-average teen slasher became an unlikely champ.