Roland Emmerich's hysterical prehistoric action flick 10,000 B.C. made me appreciate the subtleties of Mel Gibson's cinematic output. Gibson filmed his last two ultraviolent historical dramas, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, in the language of their respective settings. Rather than distance the audience from the action, Gibson found a cunning shortcut around the stilted scripture-speak of the usual Bible epics, as well as the pidgin English that usually accompanies tales of pre-technological tribes. Both films had faults, but they sounded authentic without being corny.
10,000 B.C. turns out to be an evolutionary throwback, in cinematic terms. The principal hunter-gatherers speak English, and unfortunately it's the noble-savage conversation of Tarzan movies, rife with references to "many moons," "evil spirits" and lines like, "You speak to the spear-tooth?" Alas, the film proves beyond the help of subtitles. When crazily dressed high priests show up in the film's equivalent to pharaoh-era Egypt and speak in their alien tongue, we read lines like, "We found ... The Mark!" 10,000 B.C. would be lame in any language.
Like Apocalypto, 10,000 B.C. hinges on the story of young, innocent lovers who live in a remote, peaceable community, only to be separated by slave traders who represent blood-thirsty, ziggurat-raising tyrants. 10,000 B.C.'s stalwart young hunter D'Leh (Steven Strait) pursues his kidnapped sweetheart Evolet (Camilla Belle) over frozen peaks, through perilous jungles and across desolate deserts, all apparently in reasonable walking distance.
They don't make period pieces like this anymore, and 10,000 B.C.'s cast shows no knack for turning the pompous dialogue into a campy hoot. They don't even seem to know what to do with their faces, looking blankly concerned or even stoned at their anguished moments. The film seems particularly blind to its condescending racial politics, in which a blue-eyed heroine is held as an ideal of beauty and menaced by leering, Arabic-looking raiders. Meanwhile, a white guy turns out to be the long-awaited savior of the black masses, who apparently can't lead themselves.
Director Emmerich helmed Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow and retains a knack for crafting money shots. 10,000 B.C.'s only redeeming scenes come from its prehistoric menagerie, including stampeding mammoths, a saber-toothed tiger and massive, marauding birds (whose technical name, I believe, is "Phorusrhacids"). The big birds attack in a shameless rip-off of Jurassic Park's velociraptor scenes, but provide 10,000 B.C.'s best moments. The film also offers remarkable images of the sprawling pyramid construction, but it's an utterly empty spectacle. You think, "Boy, they used some great software to render those shots!"
Met with open laughter at the screening I attended, 10,000 B.C. could appeal to the kinds of movie-goers who found Starship Troopers to be a real hoot. (That film, at least, was intentionally dumb.) If audiences can overlook the script's caveman-level literacy to groove on the mammoths and other beasts, maybe it'll even inspire a sequel. I suggest they call it 9,999 B.C.