March 13, 2008

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10,000 B.C. (PG-13)
Pre-historic humans fight giant birds, hunger and an enslaving group of warriors who have the evolutionary advantage of horses in 10,000 B.C., a perplexing action movie full of CGI animals and dusty dirty extras.

Everybody and everything in the ancient world needs a good scrubbing. At one point, a main character is gussied up to become the ladyfriend of one of the warriors who has captured her and her people. I wondered if the woman — considering her other option was to be married off to whoever “won” her during a hunting ritual — might have thought to herself “OK, yes, I don’t like being captured and forced to make whoopee with this horse-riding warrior dude but on the other hand, at least here I get a bath and a clean set of clothes.”

Evolet (Camilla Belle) is the unlucky girl whose life options boil down to “slavery” or “forced marriage.” But, at least she has the benefit of being the key figure in an old woman’s prophecy. The man who wins Evolet will lead her people out of starvation and to a brave new world of not living on the side of a snowy mountain, so says Old Mother (Mona Hammond) when the blue-eyed child Evolet is found. And from the moment that the young girl comes to live with the mountain tribe, D’Leh (Steven Strait) is all goofy in love with her. When it comes time for D’Leh to join the hunt for the mammoths that migrate through the tribe’s territory, both he and Evolet hope that he’ll be the one to pierce the heart of the lead mammoth with his spear and get to make Evolet his bride. (You wonder why the idea of the guy just asking the woman to marry him took so long to really catch on — isn’t that much easier than going through a whole rigmarole with a spear and a giant angry animal?) He’s successful at this task but achieves the spear-through-the-heart trick only accidentally, which provides him with some failure issues to work out later in the movie. (“Work out” in the sense of getting to stab other stuff; it’s not like he visits a therapist to talk about his parents, though he does also get a whole angsty backstory about his father.)

Just as D’Leh is weighing the benefits of admitting his luck and giving back Evolet, a horde of horse-riding hooligans shows up and makes off with (or kills) much of the tribe. Though D’Leh was busy Hamlet-ing out his dilemma with elder Tic’Tic (Cliff Curtis) when the bad guys arrived, Evolet was, naturally, in the thick of it and ended up tied to the back of the leader’s (Affif Ben Badra) horse. Though D’Leh and Tic’Tic couldn’t rescue their fellow tribe’s members during the attack (the whole horse thing totally threw them — maybe those four-legged demons have wings, one surviving member suggested), they and a small group of other tribesmen decide to follow the group in hopes of eventually rescuing them. As they walk from what looks like the Alps to what looks like Egypt, this small band of freedom fighters grows to include members of other tribes that lost people to the horse-riding warlords.

The geography of this movie drove me nuts. Where are these snowy mountains that exist a few weeks’ walk away from the sands of a more highly developed pyramid-building culture? If you’re going to wow me with this view of the ancient world, let me know what part of the world I’m looking at. The movie was shot in Africa and New Zealand, according to Wikipedia, and you could understand, probably, the movie taking place in eastern and northern Africa, at least parts of the action. But where? For some reason, this lack of location, like a splinter under the skin, bugged me throughout the story. How can I be impressed by what I’m seeing if I can’t tie it to something I know? Isn’t that what made Rome’s or even Gladiator’s scenes of intact Rome so impressive — that we could connect this living city to the ruins we’ve seen in modern pictures?

Without a connection to the prehistory the movie plays out for us, 10,000 B.C. leaves us with only the action. And we get the typical action-movie stuff — rescues, a moment when a giant crowd rallies to fight, stirring scores and even a big fire. But we don’t get the improbable and historically inaccurate explosions I had been hoping for or any of the accompanying cheese that would have helped turn 10,000 B.C. into something more of a popcorn spectacle. Instead of an extraordinary look back or extraordinary camp, 10,000 B.C. is ultimately only an ordinary mess of ridiculous accents and weak acting, eye-roll-inducing dialogue and not nearly enough giddy Stone Age fun. C-

Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence. Directed by Roland Emmerich and written by Emmerich and Harald Kloser,10,000 B.C. is an hour and 49 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Warner Bros.