More than a decade ago director Roland Emmerich depicted an alien invasion that nearly destroyed the human race in “Independence Day.” Now he goes back 12,000 years to portray an invasion of brutal slave traders that threatens to wipe out a prehistoric tribe of peaceful mammoth-hunters. The result is called “10,000 B.C.”
Most really bad movies take a while to hit their stride, leaving you in a sort of astonished limbo until they hit some tipping point that sends you into gales of laughter. But Emmerich’s is a doozy from the get-go: as soon as the ridiculously portentous narration, delivered with what’s supposed to be hushed awe by Omar Sharif, begins—it runs through the whole picture!—you’ll probably feel the need to suppress a smirk. And as the plot kicks in, you’re likely to feel the onset of giggles and snorts that will continue for the next hundred minutes, generated by regular howlers in the dialogue as well as nonsensical plot turns, and topped off by ample belly-laughs in the hilariously over-the-top final act. This crackpot combination of “Pathfinder” and “Apocalypto”—with a generous helping of Ray Harryhausen-inspired critter effects—is bound to vie for the title of the most unintentionally funny movie of the year.
The hero of the piece is D’Leh (Steven Strait), pronounced DeLay as in Tom, a youth in the tribe presided over by elder Tic’Tic (Cliff Curtis), who holds the white spear of leading hunter and has protected D’Leh since his father’s departure years before, and the mystical Old Mother (Mona Hammond), a swooning visionary who prophesies the end of the tribe. D’Leh loves Evolet (Camilla Belle), and hopes to win her—and the white spear—in the coming hunt against the claims of his rival Ka’Ren (Mo Zinal). But after the hunt (featuring plenty of mammoths and a really strange strategy on the part of the hunting party to bring one down), a bunch of brigands on horses led by an unnamed Warlord (Afif Ben Badra) and his brutal lieutenant One-Eye (Marco Khan) attacks the tribe’s snowy mountain settlement, killing many and carrying off most of the survivors—including Evolet—as slaves. D’Leh, Tic’Tic, Ka-Ren and D’Leh’s goofy young pal Baku (Nathaniel Baring) take off after them on foot to rescue the captives.
What follows is their trek, during which they encounter such CGI beasts as a saber-toothed tiger (unfortunately mute except for its growl, Denis Leary apparently being otherwise engaged) that D’Leh befriends by playing Androcles to it, and a gaggle of what look like giant barnyard chicks. But D’Leh’s friendship with the tiger persuades the other tribes in the desert, which have also been victimized by the slavers, that he’s the “chosen one” foretold to unify them in battle against their foes. They form a ragtag army that eventually tracks their quarry to a huge city of pyramids and temples. It’s being built by an army of slaves and mammoths at the bidding of a priest-ridden race that appears vaguely Egyptian and is ruled by a tall, wizened fellow called The Almighty—you know, pretty much the sort of place encountered in Emmerich’s equally loony (but immensely successful) “Stargate.” D’Leh and his pals enlist the slave population with them in common cause against the rulers, and a big battle ensues. There’s some nutty astrological complications (also reminiscent of “Stargate”) inserted here, but what’s important is that the oppressive slave-owning exploiters are defeated. And to top it off, things end on an ecologically high note as D’Leh, Evolet and their fellow tribesmen return with some seeds given them by their new friends in the great beyond, which they will use to transform themselves from hunter-gatherers to settled farmers. So civilization marches on.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t do so fast enough to obscure the idiocies that litter the route leading to the heroic close of “10,000 B.C.” This is an incredibly dumb, juvenile tale, at a level several rungs below a bad fifties comic book—a real cornucopia of visual and aural absurdities that might be genuinely amusing if they were constructed as a send-up of this kind of stuff, but instead seem designed to play as a straight action-adventure. To be sure, it’s told with impressive visual sweep—the ridiculously varied landscapes, from snowy mountains to sultry jungles and vast deserts, are shot with style by cinematographer Ueli Steiger, and the effects, though hardly awe-inspiring, are at least above Saturday morning kidvid quality. Unfortunately, the costumes designed by Renee April and Odile Dicks-Mireaux are beyond ludicrous, especially in the final quasi-Egyptian segment, and the makers might have given a bit of thought to the language difficulties: fortuitously almost every situation features somebody who’s at least bilingual to serve as translator (sure), but even individual characters sometimes babble incomprehensibly (with subtitles), but then turn around and speak English, in a panoply of different accents that we’re not supposed to notice or—presumably—care about.
The acting is all over the map, too, with Strait a stiffly stalwart hero, Curtis futilely trying to come off as a plausible mentor to him, and Belle never managing to shed the pose of a modern high-school girl playing dress-up. Ben Badra and Khan are comically fearsome foes, while Virgel makes a pallid ally (sort of like the tribal chief who used to kowtow to Tarzan), Zinal is a pouty tribal rival, and Baring a typically goofy sidekick. Whoever plays The Almighty is lucky enough to be swathed in drapery that effectively conceals his identity (it could be Max Von Sydow, for all I know); one bets that Hammond, who’s compelled to play out her visionary shivers and swoons in full view of the camera, wishes she’d been granted a similar indulgence.
At one point in “10,000 B.C.,” a character sagely refers to the chance he might die by saying, “I am full of days.” The movie is full of something else. If you’re in the mood for a brainless exercise in prehistoric goofiness that actually affords more laughs than “Ice Age”—though unintentionally—you might check it out; otherwise, D’Leh your acquaintance until it hits the video shelves.