“There’s something very beautiful about how the human condition hasn’t really changed over the millennia,” says Steven Strait, the actor who stars as the young warrior D’Leh. “What makes us human beings hasn’t changed since pre-historic times—love, compassion, conscience, sympathy. You see all of these things in this film. And you can relate to that no matter what era you live in.”
The above quote, taken directly from the press notes for 10,000 B.C., is without a doubt the scariest thing about Roland Emmerich’s underwhelming, CGI-infused epic.
The film follows a prehistoric hero who must battle everything from woolly mammoths to terror birds on his journey to rescue his beloved Evolet (an underused Camilla Belle) from the clutches of slave-trading thugs, and saves mankind in the process. What’s really frightening is the unquestioning enthusiasm with which Strait washes down his words with a big gulp of Emmerich’s creationist juice. For the director of Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow has crafted a blockbuster in which Neanderthal man, though speaking often in monosyllables and in strange “foreign” accents (shorthand for “caveman”), is as fully emotionally and intellectually developed as 21st century man. Darwin be damned!
But would anyone want to sit through a film in which hunting and gathering takes precedence over defending one’s honor? Probably not; that’s what video games are for. In fact, why “10,000 B.C.” wasn’t a straight-to-video-game release escapes me. With zero character development, a script by Emmerich and executive producer/composer Harald Kloser (whose career as a film composer serves his screenwriting about as much as my writing serves neurosurgery) and three big CGI set-pieces involving mammoths, predatory birds and a giant tiger, 10,000 B.C. is nothing more than Playstation minus audience interaction. (Kloser, as quoted in the press kit: “Roland and I never intended for 10,000 B.C. to be a documentary.”)
And Emmerich could have avoided the other huge misstep for mankind that 10,000 B.C. takes. Emmerich has compared his mammoth hunters to Native American buffalo hunters who never forgot to show respect for their prey. Oddly, Emmerich in his casting decisions parallels the disrespect shown towards Native Americans in those classic westerns, Indians always played by white men in rattling beads and headdresses. Filming mostly in New Zealand (with additional locations in South Africa and Namibia) Emmerich has assembled a primary cast, led by Strait’s hero D’Leh, made up of Maori actors, a people who emerged from the womb ready for their close up. But seeing Steven Strait, a native New Yorker, and the half-Brazilian Camilla Belle, done up in dreadlocks and tribal clothing alongside these faces is off-putting, especially considering that the movie’s other top-billed actor is Cliff Curtis (who plays fellow warrior Tic’Tic), a veteran Maori actor of stage and screen. All Emmerich had to do was take a peek at one of Curtis’ vehicles Once Were Warriors to realize the wealth of untapped thespian resources in New Zealand. Why bring in leads that don’t resemble the tribe they’re leading?
But alas, acting and script matter not when the focus is on beefcake and glossy technology. 10,000 B.C. with its half-naked, dreadlocked cutie tribesmen and wide vistas of New Zealand’s Waiorau Snow Farm and dense foliage of South Africa’s tropical jungle where the CGI characters battle with the interloping humans, could just as easily been set in the remote regions of modern day. What makes this film feel prehistoric? I haven’t a clue. The mammoth look like furry elephants, the terror birds resemble giant ostriches, and the huge saber-toothed tiger, well, a big tiger with dental problems (probably all due to the fact that the CGI animals were referenced to today’s counterparts in order to create lifelike movement).
Not that the CGI is that impressive. Take away the thunderous sound effects (mammoth or horse stampede, take your pick, they all sound the same) that rumble through the seats and nothing onscreen makes you jump out of them. They’re as lightweight as the mammoth that falls on top of D’Leh, who gets pulled out from under the mounds of Cousin It hair nary a scratch. Between the annoying dialogue (“She’s alive!” D’Leh exclaims upon finding Evolet’s necklace in the sand. Yeah, I guess if he’d found her neck she’d be dead!), and shameless melodrama (tribal shaman Big Mother shivers when the heroes encounter freezing temperatures, feels their pain from afar), I began to root for the CGI characters, just trying to get by without being massacred by obnoxious mankind tramping through their habitat. The over-reliance on sound effects and music to make us react only reminds that the sweeping score by the producer/screenwriter/composer is more emotional than the movie itself. It’s almost as if Emmerich believes that bigger and louder is better, that if you overwhelm the audience with sight and sound we won’t notice how bad the script is. (How about an engrossing story instead?)
And the human baddies are even more unconvincing than the saber-toothed tiger that D’Leh frees so that it can appear in the next scene, remember him and save him from getting slaughtered by another tribe. (This anthropomorphizing worked in The Golden Compass because that film’s CGI characters actually served as human ids.) With lines like “Capture them!” and “Tie her to my horse!” (subtitled, of course, since tying a woman to a horse in a foreign language might not be understood) the flashy slave-traders look more Pirates of the Caribbean than prehistoric. And why does the lead baddie with the sweet spot for Evolet speak in a distorted voice straight out of The Exorcist? I guess it doesn’t matter with a script as convoluted as this. When D’Leh asks his father’s best friend why he allowed him for so long to think his dad had dishonorably abandoned the tribe when he’d really gone off on a solo journey to save it, the guy replies that his father didn’t want anyone to know, was afraid that others might follow him and abandon the people. Huh? And then there’s that blind man stored away underground like a buried corpse so the head of the evil empire won’t discover him. Perhaps this film is rated PG-13 because it’s not suitable for anyone with post-pubescent thinking skills? (Quoth Strait in the press kit: “Being on top of a mountain in New Zealand with dreadlocks down to your chest makes it a lot easier to pretend you’re a mammoth hunter.”)
In the end 10,000 B.C. is a Lord of The Rings quest, meshed with a Lawrence of Arabia uniting the tribes to conquer the enemy theme, with a splash of Spartacus defeating the slave-traders by spawning a prisoners’ uprising, sprinkled with Golden Compass CGI creations (mammoths in place of polar bears). All of which made me wish I were watching any of those films instead of Emmerich’s big-budget disaster (and I didn’t even like The Golden Compass.) The only saving graces are the fun little queenie assistants to the “Almighty,” hands aflutter like worried stylists (You go, girls!), and the bare-chested pretty boy cavemen (in a story as deep as a Versace spread). At least now I know what Calvin Klein ads looked like in 10,000 B.C.