If only all the money spent on Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto could have been devoted to this far more exciting project. As it is, veteran Aussie exploitationer Brian Trenchard-Smith seems to get short-changed on the poor-even-by-SciFi-Channel-standards CGI dinosaurs and almost every other aspect of this threadbare production. It boasts the smallest Aztec step-pyramid on record, barely more than a patio with an altar, and features a tribe which consists almost entirely of the cliché principles (good king, wicked high priest, hubba-hubba princess) with barely a handmaiden or guard extra in sight (in fact, they are mostly outnumbered by a five-man conquistador expedition).
Narration establishes that this is an account of the hitherto-unrecorded first visit of Cortes (Ian Ziering) to Mexico, when his small band of cuirassed raiders come across a tiny tribe whose evil shaman Xocozin (Kalani Queypo) rips out hearts traditionally on the pyramid and feeds them to one of a mating pair of ‘thunder lizards’ which hang around in the jungle and are appeased by these offerings. A drunken, shipwrecked monk Gria (Jack MacGee) – the inventor of ‘sangria’, as it happens – has taught the locals Spanish (ie: American English with no contractions), which facilitates a romance between nice guy conquistador Rios (Marco Sanchez) and native honey Ayacoatl (Dichen Lachman) and means that at least Xocozin can scheme, plot, rant, betray and backstab without too many subtitles. Cortes and co. are captured, but the Spaniards offer to trap and kill a tyrannosaur in exchange for freedom – and promise not to return in force and loot the country (we know in advance how that works out). The first monster is lured into a pit of stakes, in perhaps the worst effects shot in dinosaur history since the days of photographically enlarged lizards or stuntmen in baggy costumes. However, its mate is still at large, Cortes steals some statues and makes a run for it, and Xocozin – who wants Ayacoatl for himself and keeps nagging her noble if overly trusting father Matlal (Allen Gumapac) about sticking to ‘our teachings’ – doses stay-behind liberal Rios’s fermented cactus with shrooms so he goes all wobbly on their two-man lizard hunt. Xocozin shows some gumption in using the baddie’s ripped-out heart to lure the angry female beast to the tiny pyramid and feeding it gunpowder which blows its face off.
Cortes’s boys mostly get gutted or gobbled – this is as gory as Trenchard-Smith’s near-legendary Turkey Shoot, with conquistadors cradling their torn-out intestines or waking up to see their chewn-off legs disappearing down a T-Rex gullet – but he is left alive to fulfill his destiny at the end, though the narrator (Gria) explains that when he came back to conquer the continent he left this valley alone. The dialogue is unspeakable (screenwriter Richard Manning has midlist TV credits – later Star Treks, Fame, Farscape, TekWar, Sliders, She-Wolf of London, Space Precinct), performances are shrill in stereotype roles (Queypo is amusingly venomous, though – and Lachman looks weirdly lovely with tattoos) and the action clunkily-staged even without the tipped-in ‘saurs. Still, it’s hard not to get a vestigial thrill from the mere concept – woo-hoo, Aztecs and conqiustadors versus dinosaurs! Mel, it’s not too late to buy the rights and remake this as Apocalypto II: This Time It’s Dinosaurs.