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The caveman is a beloved archetype for a reason. Beetle-browed and quizzical, cognitively challenged but game for anything, he's a stand-in for us moderns as we try to puzzle out the mystery of our humanity. The classic caveman—a fur-clad, club-wielding, wheel-inventing regular guy—is a condensation of assumptions, speculations, and fantasies about our ancestral past. (That he never really existed as such was the premise for those brilliant Geico ads and the short-lived ABC series they inspired.) But caveman cinema, even at its goofiest, can be a thought-provoking genre. Depictions of early humans have the potential to ask the big questions: Where does language come from? What should our relationship be to nature, to technology, to other humans? A good caveman movie also tackles more immediate concerns: What me do when fire go out? How me escape from stampeding woolly mammoth?
10,000 B.C. (Warner Bros.), Roland Emmerich's new prehistoric adventure, disappoints not because it's a bad caveman movie, but because it isn't one at all. Rather than taking the trouble to imagine what early civilization might have been like—its culture, its language, its warfare, its family life—the movie simply transposes a banal Hollywood epic into Paleolithic times. Or maybe Mesolithic. Emmerich, who's already done alien invasion (Independence Day) and environmental armageddon (The Day After Tomorrow), excels at staging grand-scale chaos, but he's no stickler for detail. So what if the construction of the pyramids didn't really overlap with the existence of the woolly mammoth? Can you honestly say you don't want to see a herd of crazed mammoths stampeding down the ramps of a pyramid in progress?
We begin, as Omar Sharif informs us in a mystical voice-over, at the dawn of mankind in the small mountain settlement of a tribe called the Yagahl. After his father mysteriously abandons the clan, a young hunter, D'Leh (Steven Strait), falls in love with a blue-eyed cavegirl named Evolet (Camilla Belle, looking fresh from a WB teen drama). When a group of Yagahl tribesmen, including Evolet, is kidnapped by marauding slave traders, D'Leh conscripts a band of hunters, including his adoptive father, Tic'Tic (Cliff Curtis), to go in search of them. On their way, these dreadlocked warriors will encounter the full roster of prehistoric threats: rival tribesmen, saber-toothed tigers, and a killer reptilian emu that chomps its way through entire forests of bamboo. By the time they arrive at the huge, quasi-Egyptian construction site, D'Leh has become the leader of an army of oppressed tribes who scheme to overthrow the enslavers and their veiled, godlike pharaoh. Meanwhile, back at the Yagahl encampment, an ancient matriarchal figure known as Old Mother (Mona Hammond) relays the faraway events to the remaining tribesmen via a kind of psychic closed-circuit TV.
I don't begrudge this plot its stupidity or lack of verisimilitude; some of my best friends are stupid and far-fetched. What makes the movie a drag is the pedestrian joylessness with which it plods through its hypercompressed evolutionary timeline. The invention of agriculture? Oh, here's a bag of seeds to take home from your journey. The first encounter with foreign languages? Hey, luckily there's a guy who can translate them all for you. One of the movie's biggest disappointments is its failure to have fun with language. All the Yagahls communicate in grammatically perfect, vaguely accented English. Even their mellifluous names (D'Leh? Evolet?) could easily appear on the roster of a hippie preschool. (Need I invoke the caveman names from movies of yore: Goov? Creb? Lar? Gaw?) Anthony Burgess created an entire proto-language for Quest for Fire; the best Emmerich and his co-writer, Harald Kloser, can do is to envision a time before the invention of contractions. ("Do not eat me when I set you free.")
I'm not asking for the anthropological earnestness of the great early-'80s caveman classics (Quest for Fire, Iceman, The Clan of the Cave Bear) or the philosophical reach of the first part of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which technology, war, and space travel are all invented with the toss of a single bone. But at least give us the lusty fun of Caveman (1981), in which Ringo Starr and Dennis Quaid play two bumbling Paleolithic pals living in the year "1 zillion B.C." 10,000 B.C. profits from the latest in Homo sapiens technology—the CGI predators are ably rendered and the digitized battle scenes spectacular (even if they do crib from Apocalypto and The Two Towers). But in terms of character development, wit, and simple curiosity, it's dumber than a Neanderthal.