Friday, March 7, 2008

10,000 B.C.: Too primitive

10,000 B.C. (2008) • View trailer for 10,000 B.C.
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and perhaps too harshly, for prehistoric action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.7.08
Buy DVD: 10,000 B.C. • Buy Blu-Ray: 10,000 B.C. [Blu-ray]

I don't care if the screenwriters are trying to be historically accurate; this movie needs dinosaurs.

After falling into a pit trap, D'Leh (Steven Strait) discovers that he's sharing it
with a greatly annoyed saber-toothed tiger. But the tiger is entangled as well,
and — against his better judgment — our young hero decides to free the beast
and hope that it won't devour him.

Or it needs something. I'd settle for Raquel Welch or Carole Landis.

That's the primary issue: Despite all the golly-gee-wow technology that turns its third act into a breathtaking visual spectacle, the story at the heart of 10,000 B.C. is so retro that it creaks as badly as its juvenile "Me Tarzan, you Jane" dialogue. The special effects notwithstanding, I'd have to say that both 1940's One Million B.C. (with Landis) and 1966's One Million Years B.C. (Welch) were far more entertaining.

Like George Lucas before him, director Roland Emmerich has based his career on re-invigorating Hollywood's golden age of action-adventure serials. Emmerich's early efforts were impressive: Stargate made enough of a splash with genre geeks that it spawned not just one but two TV shows, one of which continues even now; Independence Day was a hell-for-leather riff on War of the Worlds that proved far more fun than Steven Spielberg's way-too-serious remake of the H.G. Wells classic.

Heck, I even enjoyed Emmerich's update of Godzilla, a film that probably would have been far more successful if Sony hadn't tried to persuade us that it was the cinematic equivalent of the Second Coming.

But Emmerich's spectacle began to outstrip his story sense with The Day After Tomorrow, which played like one of the hokey disaster flicks so popular in the 1970s and '80s.

And while 10,000 B.C. isn't quite a disaster, it's also nothing to write home about. Calling this prehistoric ramble "dull" probably overstates the case, but the film takes a long, long time to reach its conclusion.

The primary faults lie both with the script and the starring players. The former — credited to Emmerich and Harald Kloser — is insufferably primitive and simplistic; the latter scarcely register on the screen. Thank goodness for New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis, who makes a strong impression as the seasoned warrior who guides our callow protagonist; absent his involvement, we probably wouldn't care about any of these characters.

The setting is, as the film's title suggests, long, long ago; the protagonists belong to a remote mountain tribe calling themselves the Yagahl. The plot could be scribbled on the back of a postage stamp: Boy meets girl; girl gets taken by raiding barbarians; boy pursues girl and discovers that she has become a slave to warlords building the cradle of civilization. Much fighting erupts.

Come to think of it, that sounds rather like the story arcs in Mel Gibson's ill-fated Apocalypto. So much for originality.

Our spear-carrying, hunter-gatherer heroes don't have much in the way of defining personalities, so don't feel bad if it takes you awhile to recognize D'Leh (Steven Strait) as our "hero of prophecy." The weird names don't help much; until the stars emerge from the supporting players, it's difficult to distinguish D'Leh from Ka'ren, Tic'Tic, Baku and all the rest.

We've no such trouble keeping track of Evolet (Camilla Belle), a young orphan adopted into the tribe because "Old Mother" (Mona Hammond) believes this blue-eyed girl has an important role to play. Evolet certainly captures D'Leh's heart — as he captures hers — and the two pledge undying, Shakespearean-style love.

From this point forward, Evolet does little beyond serving as the catalyst for all subsequent action. Thankfully, she's not entirely helpless — Belle supplies a bit of resourceful spunk — but Emmerich doesn't give the poor actress much to do.

After Evolet and many other Yagahl men and women are captured by "four-legged demons" — slave raiders on horseback — D'Leh and Tic'Tic (Curtis) take two other warriors and pursue the invaders. Their journey eventually leads to another tribe, the Naku, whose leader (Joel Virgel) had a son kidnapped by the same invaders.

The Naku regard D'Leh with wonder, because — as foretold by prophecy — he is the man who "speaks" with the fanged monster (a pretty cool saber-toothed tiger).

At this point, cultural uneasiness set in: Haven't we gotten past storylines that involve a handsome white outsider arriving to lead and inspire an entire black tribe to greater glory? What was Emmerich thinking?

The bulk of the film's first two acts are preoccupied with long tracking shots of deserts, jungles and snow-covered mountains, not to mention endless acts of male bonding accompanied by fortune-cookie dialogue. The self-doubting D'Leh needs frequent encouragement from Tic'Tic, and the appropriately solemn Curtis supplies the necessary gravity. But it all begins to pall after awhile, as we grow impatient while waiting for something of consequence to happen.

As far as critters go, the aforementioned saber-toothed tiger is impressive, but too infrequently utilized. Woolly mammoths get considerable play, both to establish Yagahl hunting abilities and, later, as beast of burden helping to construct the giant pyramid of the Egyptian-esque people who paid the slave traders to kidnap fresh workers from hither and yon.

The best sequence, however, comes unexpectedly: a skirmish involving D'Leh, the slave traders and a couple of oversized "terror birds" that relentlessly pursue these soft, fleshy, two-legged meals. This is the only time Emmerich's film becomes edge-of-the-seat exciting. In hindsight, that's a problem, because it's a minor encounter en route to a finale that seems flat by comparison.

It's the first rule of adventure flicks: You don't front-load your best action sequence and then disappoint with a weaker third act. One must build to ever-greater thrills 'n' chills.

That said, I must admit that the finale's set-up is nothing short of stunning. The pyramid-building operation, and the impressively huge city responsible for this work, are realized with persuasive authenticity. It's literally impossible to tell the real from the CGI; it looks for all the world as if visual effects supervisor Karen Goulekas and production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos built an entire civilization in the middle of desert nothingness.

We haven't seen this degree of all-stops-out fabrication since the Lord of the Rings trilogy and, in particular, its depiction of Mordor.

I only wish Emmerich had taken similar care with the characters populating this long-ago world. Strait just isn't much of an actor, and his pouty petulance wears thin rather quickly. Granted, the script doesn't help, but Ben Badra and Marco Khan establish much more vivid personalities — as, respectively, the chief slave raider and his one-eyed lieutenant — with similarly sketchy material.

Ultimately, though, I suspect our 21st century sensibilities have made it difficult (impossible?) to get involved with such primordial characters. We're no longer impressed by giant creatures for their own sake, as we were in 1940 and '66, and the novelty of really trying to depict such ancient peoples — best realized with 1981's Quest for Fire — just doesn't work as well on the big screen, as it does on the printed page.

Not all genres can survive changing times, and this one needs to retire.

After Jurassic Park, the retro elements of 10,000 B.C. are just too creaky.

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