10,000 BC (2008) **Ĺ
Suddenly, I am forced to confront a truly world-shaking possibility: maybe Roland Emmerich was never really the problem. True, he served as director for all of the mostly worthless sci-fi action movies he made with Dean Devlin throughout the 1990ís, and one tends to assign directors the largest share of the credit or blame for how the films they work on turn out, except when some other factor (exceptionally witty dialogue, tragically insufficient funding, etc.) clearly outweighs their contributions. True also that Emmerich helped write those hypertrophic wastes of celluloid, seemingly redoubling his culpability. And yet 10,000 BC suggests instead that perhaps we should have considered Devlin the senior partner in their eight-year reign of cinematic terror, for it pairs Emmerich with a different producer (fifteen of them, in point of fact) and a different co-writer, and contrary to all defensible expectations, it isnít that bad! Indeed, grading on the extremely forgiving curve of previous caveman movies, 10,000 BC might score as high as a B-minus. Admittedly, the English-language acting all sucks. Admittedly, the story relies heavily on the ďman from a primitive tribe leaves home and encounters more advanced peoples who introduce him to mesolithic skills and/or technologiesĒ framework that had underlain nearly every film of this type for the last 70 years at least. And admittedly, its divergences from the aforementioned formula frequently come packaged with bizarre, underdeveloped, and generally pointless callbacks to Emmerichís earlier Stargate. But even so, you donít have to watch too many caveman flicks before it becomes apparent how far above the genreís median quality level 10,000 BC is.
The primitive tribe here is called the Agal, and as the inevitable narrator (Omar Sharif! No, reallyó itís Omar Sharif!) elaborates, they are the mightiest of those who hunt the meneksó or as we 2000 AD types know them, the woolly mammoths. The Agal are led in partnership between their most accomplished hunter, whose authority is symbolized by the White Spear, and a shaman, who at the present time is a woman known aptly enough as Old Mother (Mona Hammond). As we begin, Old Mother is delivering a prophecy of the Last Hunt, a time in the not-nearly-distant-enough future when the decline in the mammoth population that is already in evidence will reach critical proportions, and when a race of four-legged demons will descend upon the Agalís valley, coming terribly close to destroying the tribe. On the upside, Old Mother also prophesies that the Last Hunt will mark the emergence of a great hero to lead the Agal to new glories and a new and much more secure way of life. Also, the old shamaness is pretty sure the events of this Last Hunt are somehow tied in with the arrival of a blue-eyed girl from beyond the Great Mountains, who had recently wandered into the valley as a refugee from some terrible calamity. The chief (Kristian Beazley) is not consoled by the more positive aspects of this augury, however. Heís been worried for several years about the mammoth situation, and he believes that the time to lead the Agal to a surer lifestyle is now. With that in mind, he relinquishes the White Spear to his trusted friend, Tictic (Cliff Curtis, from Deep Rising and yet another of the unconscionably numerous movies called Virus), and sets off into the outside world on a quest for some means to free the Agal from their dependence on a dwindling food supply. He swears Tictic to secrecy regarding his mission, though, for the chiefís standing and reputation are such that he fears his departure would spark an exodus of the best and bravest hunters, eager to share in the undertaking. Mammoth season approaches, and it would be better for the tribe if the chief simply slunk off into the night, leaving the other hunters to make what they will of his departure. What they make of it, naturally, is rank cowardice, which complicates life rather seriously for the chiefís son, DíLeh. Ostracized by the other boys, DíLeh befriends the blue-eyed girló Evolet is her nameó the only other member of the tribe whose circumstances leave her as lonely and isolated as he is.
Years go by, and DíLeh and Evolet grow up to become Steven Strait (from The Covenant) and Camilla Belle (of Poison Ivy II and The Lost World: Jurassic Park). Thereís been no word from the old chief in all that time. Tictic, meanwhile, is nearing what we would now consider middle age (making him fairly old for a Cro Magnon), and he feels that the time has come to pass along the White Spear to one of the rising young hunters. His successor will be whoever kills the first mammoth of the next seasonís hunt. Savvy observers favor Kaíren (Mo Zinal), but when the day arrives, itís DíLehís spear that brings down the beast. Whatís more, it happens under circumstances that make DíLeh look the biggest possible bad-ass, for the tribeís usual group hunting technique (which involves tricking the mammoths into a stampede, and then snaring the last straggler of the herd in a titanic net) goes drastically wrong. The mammoth rips the net clear of its moorings, and charges off, dragging the whole tribeís worth of hapless hunters behind it. DíLeh is the only man who remains with the mammoth until it finally shakes free of the net, and as I said, itís his spear in the animalís heart when the other hunters finally catch up. Amid much celebration and congratulation, DíLeh claims both the White Spear and the hand of Evolet in whatever passes for marriage among the Agal, but something is amiss here. DíLeh didnít hang onto the net out of courage, but because he was as thoroughly entangled in it as his prey. And the mammoth effectively delivered the killing thrust to itself, charging into the point of DíLehís spear after cornering the hunter amid a scattering of boulders. DíLehís victory came not through skill and bravery, but through outrageous good luck, and the gnawing of his conscience soon leads him to renounce both the White Spear and Evolet.
Fortunately, the romantic angst that springs up at this point is quickly trampled down by the arrival of those four-legged demons Old Mother mentioned way back when. Turns out the old lady was talking about the mounted archers of some Proto-Semitic people, led by a Thulsa Doom wannabe whose name we never will learn (Affif Ben Badra) and a guy who looks rather like the Iron Sheik (Marco Khan, from Point of Contact and Women of the Night). The horsemen are slave-raiders (in fact, theyíre the slave-raiders who destroyed Evoletís village a decade or so ago), and they kidnap as many of the able-bodied Agal men as they can get their hands onó together with Evolet, as the head honcho apparently has a thing for chicks with blue eyes. Of the hunters worth bothering with, only Tictic, DíLeh, and Kaíren are able to evade capture, and as soon as the dust settles, they go off in pursuit. A boy named Baku (Nathaniel Baring) joins up with the rescue mission, too, albeit only with the most severely grudging consent from its leader; had Bakuís whole family not been killed in the attack, Tictic would surely insist that he stay home with the women and children.
The quest that follows does indeed touch virtually all of the expected caveman movie bases. It has the trek across a range of landscapes and ecosystems that defies any plausible geographic interpretation. It has the expected encounters with prehistoric beasts, including the ever-popular sabertooth cat. (On the other hand, it also has a whole pack of terror birds, something I canít remember seeing in a paleontologically inclined fantasy movie since The Ghost of Slumber Mountain.) There are encounters with other, more socially and technologically with-it tribesó most notably the Massai-like Naqu, whose leader, Nakudu (Joel Virgel), befriended DíLehís father when his great trek carried him into their territory. About the one major genre clichť that 10,000 BC doesnít employ except very obliquely is the intertribal love interest for the hero. Evolet isnít technically an Agal, but sheís lived among them for long enough by the start of the main action that she canít really be considered a counterpart to Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. or Rae Dawn Chong in Quest for Fire, either. Curiously enough, however, the deeper 10,000 BC delves into its plot, the further the hoary old caveman commonplaces recede in favor of at least marginally less geriatric tropes borrowed from 80ís barbarian movies. I began to suspect that some such development was in the offing the moment those slave-raiding horsemen showed up, and I was quite pleased to discover that Emmerich and his co-writer, Harald Kloser, werenít merely teasing us. The pseudo-Hyborean hijinks include a riff on the legend of Androcles and the lion that pairs DíLeh up with a Smilodon; not one, but three Chosen One prophesies that DíLeh and/or Evolet are supposed to fulfill, originating in as many cultures; a massive slave uprising aimed at toppling a tyrant; and a paranoid self-proclaimed god-king who may or may not hail originally from Atlantis. And as a special Barbarian Bonus, 10,000 BC even offers an implicit endorsement of a currently fashionable bit of borderline-crackpot archeological revisionism.
That genre-juggling goes more than a little ways toward explaining my unexpected affection for 10,000 BC, I think. Iím almost always favorably disposed toward good-faith efforts to revive obsolete species of trash cinema, and a caveman movie thatís also a barbarian movie might as well have been made especially for me. The really amazing thingó and this gets us back to what I was saying before about Roland Emmerich possibly having not been the problem back in the mid-to-late 90ísó is that 10,000 BC truly does represent a good-faith effort to recapture the glory (if such it may be called) of films like Ironmaster and Ator the Fighting Eagle. In stark contrast to Independence Day and Godzilla, 10,000 BC respects its genre heritage, however undeserving of respect that heritage might be. Those who watched the aforementioned Devlin-Emmerich productions because they wanted to see an alien invasion epic or a kaiju flick were effectively told, ďNo way, dude! Those old movies were lame, and youíre an asshole for liking them. Earthquake and Airportó thatís where itís at!Ē Here, though, what weíre promised is exactly what we get.
Of course, thatís not to say that was weíre promised isnít dumb, or that the promise is kept with any great skill. Like every Roland Emmerich movie Iíve seen, 10,000 BC is rather longer than it needs to be, and its pacing suggests at times a fat man running a marathon. Steven Strait is convincingly heroic only in comparison to Matthew Broderick or Bill Pullman, and does nothing to distract you from how little DíLehís actions justify his status as thrice-foretold deliverer. Potentially entertaining story elements fall by the wayside a bit too often without ever properly earning their inclusion, as when DíLehís Smilodon pops up to convince the Naqu that this kid from the mountains is really He Who Speaks to the Spear-Tooth, but is never seen again after that. Not since Black Samson has a big cat let the audience down so completely. And speaking of the Naqu, thereís something strange going on with themó and, for that matter, with the several other African tribes that the Agal warriors enlist to give credibility to their fight against the Proto-Semitic slavers. I mentioned earlier that this film follows the pattern of One Million B.C. by bringing the Agal into contact with cultures more sophisticated than theirs, but it diverges in an interesting way from the usual handling of that plot device. With the notable exception of Quest for Fire, every previous caveman movie that I know of to adhere to the formula made the people of the advanced tribe lighter-skinned and lighter-haired than the primitive protagonists. In 10,000 BC, however, the most advanced stone-agers are coal-black, and the bronze-age villains are distinctly swarthy, too, despite their Caucasoid features. Itís kind of cool, as far as it goes, and itís the closest this movie ever comes to accuracyó only in the High Middle Ages did Europe begin to decisively supplant North Africa and the Middle East as a center of social, cultural, and scientific innovation. The thing is, though, that the Naqu and the other black tribes still instantly and uncritically embrace DíLeh as their leader in the war against the Proto-Semites, despite his obvious lack of personal qualifications for the job, and despite the equally obvious backwardness of his people. The Naqu have horticulture, domesticated food plants, permanent buildings, a form of narrative painting thatís obviously the first step toward the development of writing, and an implicit habit of interaction with the other tribes of the desert and savanna. The Agal have pointed sticks. Nevertheless, age-old superstition keeps the Naqu waiting passively around for the arrival of a white savage who talks to kitties before attempting their rebellion against the slavers. Itís like something out of a 1930ís Tarzan movie, and it counteracts a fair bit of my natural good will toward 10,000 BC.
This review is part of the B-Masters Cabalís salute to caveman and barbarian movies, those films that did so much to usher cable-enabled boys of my age group into the perpetually suspended adolescence that passes for manhood among us. Click the banner below to read my colleaguesí takes on the subject.