A number of years ago, I read a piece of film criticism written by Roger Ebert. The Pulitzer Prize winning movie critic wrote a review of “Caveman”, a film starring Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach - the filmmakers provided a press kit for the screening listing the words used within the film, the caveman’s vocabulary, and the meaning of these words - Ebert used these words to describe how bad “Caveman” was and it was quite a memorable movie review. I only wish “10,000 B.C.” was as inventive. Actually, it is inventive in one regard; the depiction of history within the film is laughably inventive.
“10,000 B.C” begins even a few years earlier when a small tribe of cavemen takes in a strange orphan girl with blue eyes. The Old Mother (Mona Hammond) predicts this girl, whom they name Evolet, must become a part of the tribe, and she and D’Leh, a young boy whose father mysteriously leaves the tribe, become friends. Flash forward to 10,000 B.C. and the last Mammoth hunt is here. Now, D’Leh (Steven Strait) and Evolet (Camilla Belle) are attracted to one another. But Tic Tic (Cliff Curtis), D’Leh’s defacto father figure claims the warrior who kills a mammoth wins the white spear and Evolet. Well, D’Leh is gonna do both, I tell you what. D’Leh manages to kill the only mammoth and claims his prize. Later that evening, the four-legged beasts (horses to you and I) carry another tribe invading the tribe and they carry Evolet and a number of other women off. D’Leh and Tic Tic set-off to find her and bring her back. They set out leaving Baku (Nathaniel Baring) behind, but the precocious young kid trails behind and soon joins them. Their trek takes them across Africa, where they meet other tribes who have fallen victim to the same marauders and want to help. They join forces with D’Leh. Eventually, they arrive in Egypt and find a number of slaves and wooly mammoths helping to build the pyramids. And Evolet is being held captive. How can they free Evolet and all of their other tribesmen who have become slaves?
Co-written and directed by Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day” – one of the best summer movies ever, “The Day After Tomorrow”), the film has a grand scale and does a pretty good job of recreating some icons of the caveman era, but pretty bad acting and playing fast and loose with what little we actually know of this period help to ruin the film.
We have all seen this type of film before; the director and rest of the production team are so intent on recreating a specific time or place, using all of their skills and tricks to recreate the icons of this era, that they have no time left for the actors. Time or money. The film is filled with actors we have never seen before and they are adequate for the purpose and are certainly no better or no worse than the material they are appearing in. Steven Strait plays D’Leh, the lead. He is handsome, even under the gunk and dirt painted on his body to help him portray the caveman he is supposed to be. I have never seen him in anything before, probably from television or soap operas, and his performance is unremarkable and serviceable to the CGI creatures and effects. Camilla Belle plays Evolet, the love interest and again, she is serviceable to the special effects and unremarkable. This isn’t a film you go to expecting to watch the next great Academy Award winning performance. All of the money, time and attention went into recreating wooly mammoths, saber tooth tigers and the ancient pyramids.
The film begins with narration by Omar Sharif. He talks about the tribe, the Old Mother, how D’Leh and Evolet met. Throughout the film, he tells us what particular characters are thinking, and experiencing. It is an interesting idea and his voice is fun to listen to. But because he is telling us about people’s feelings and motivations, and we aren’t seeing this in their performance, it makes the actors seem even more awkward and wooden. Not a good thing for these young actors.
During the course of the film, D’Leh and Nakudu come across other tribes during their journey to rescue Evolet. D’Leh’s tribe speaks English, but no one else does. This just makes no sense. Of course, they aren’t really speaking “English”, but their tribe’s language is translated for us and that is what we hear. Every time they come into contact with some other tribe of people, they are speaking a tongue that requires subtitles for us to understand. Worse, when D’Leh and his warriors come into contact with an African tribe, one of their members can speak the same language and communicate with them. But of course, the rest can’t. This makes is especially easy for them to become allies and move through Africa enlisting the aid of other troops. It would’ve been easier for the filmmakers to simply create a language, as the people who made “Caveman” did. It makes about as much sense.
Worse, when the people are speaking English, they use strange, affected accents making their dialogue sound like a badly dubbed Italian gladiator film. Even more unnerving, the tribe of marauders who invade D’Leh’s camp and take Evolet speak in some strange tongue, which also sounds as though they might be aliens; their voices sound like they are given the same treatment James Earl Jones voice was given when he voiced Darth Vader.
The key obstacle for films recreating periods of time from long ago, times we have little or spotty knowledge of is to make these worlds seem real. Because Emmerich does little to maintain what we actually do know about the timeline of this period, or to make the geography seem real, the film seems completely phony. There just isn’t enough in the film to help us believe we are watching a real moment in this history.
So, let’s talk a little about the “history” of this film. Cavemen make a trek from their home camp, which is located in a mountain range somewhere, complete with snow and cold temperatures. Their journey takes them into Africa, where they meet many other tribes, and they all band together to rescue the people kidnapped from their tribes and taken to Egypt to help build the pyramids. Okay, so where are these cavemen coming from? Snowy mountains, then trekking through Africa to Egypt? Did they make a u-turn somewhere? Yeah, that’s it. They even journey through what looks like a rainforest at one point. Must be one of those fabled rainforests that have completely dried up in the intervening 12000 plus years. Yeah, that’s it.
But then, the cavemen eventually make it to Egypt where the evil king – priest – priestess – eunuch (not sure) is using the slaves to build the pyramids. Uh huh. Sorry, but even my limited knowledge of history is enough to tell me this never happened. Never could have happened. Yes, I know it is a film, and it isn’t trying to be a history lesson.
But when a filmmaker makes a film like this, intended for a mass audience, primarily aimed at teens, playing this fast and loose with history, seems, at best, problematic. I know that for every group of teenage boys who goes to this film, at least one of them will end up thinking some caveman was able to travel to Egypt and at least temporarily delay the building of the pyramids. Then, maybe this same teenager will one day believe the ramblings of someone else who believed the Romans never had slaves and will one day grow up to believe the Holocaust never happened.
Okay, that is a stretch. “10,000 B.C.” isn’t good enough to be that powerful.
Director Roland Emmerich has made better films. Much better films. Even “Godzilla” was better.