Conventional where it should be bold and mild where it should be wild, “10,000 BC” reps a missed opportunity to present an imaginative vision of a prehistoric moment. Pussyfooting around with multicultural fantasies of how various African tribes might have banded together against unnamed pyramid-building slavemasters, with periodic attacks by now-extinct giant beasts, helmer Roland Emmerich does serve up some moments of grand spectacle to enliven an otherwise bland concoction. After long delays (pic was originally announced for summer 2007 release), Warner Bros. is pointedly opening the film in what is now referred to as the “300” slot, generating expectations that should result in a potent opening. Stateside B.O. will likely slide quickly, but international prospects appear quite brawny.
With the nearly limitless possibilities provided by CGI and violence-tolerant R ratings, it would seem that, if you’re going to make an action epic set in an exotic time and place, you just need to go for it. Regardless of one’s critical opinions of individual films, it’s hard to deny the balls-out, ultra-visceral, stylistically audacious approaches of “Apocalypto” and “300” injected some fresh excitement into a long-dormant and generally derided genre.
The box office will tell its own story, but in terms of sheer impact, it seems all but pointless to make such a film now that holds back to avoid an R rating. Compared to its brethren, “10,000 BC” seems neutered, timid and unnaturally averse to showing, much less dramatically embracing the implicit savagery of its warrior characters. It even seems to put itself above addressing the most elemental desires of the teen fanbase by offering little beefcake and absolutely no cheesecake — a basic component entirely understood by the makers of the scruffy 1966 Raquel Welch starrer “One Million Years B.C.,” a film suitable even for small fry.
First big sequence is a woolly mammoth hunt meant to establish the new leader of a small mountain tribe. As impressively rendered here, the mammoths truly live up to their name, but the hunt ends inconclusively; D’Leh (Steven Strait), a dreadlocked young man considered to be the village coward, almost accidentally makes the kill and in good conscience can’t accept the two intended rewards — the symbolic white spear meant for the top hunter, and the hand of his longtime love, blue-eyed beauty Evolet (Camilla Belle).
As in both “Apocalypto” and “One Million Years B.C.,” the core of the film is a long trek into unknown territory, prompted here by the kidnapping of Evolet and other young villagers by marauding horsemen. As D’Leh, older mentor Tic’Tic (Cliff Curtis) and two others traverse snowy peaks, dense jungle and eventually forbidding desert in pursuit of the interlopers, they encounter a flock of giant flightless birds with outsized beaks that aggressively manifest the direct connection between dinosaurs and fowl, as well as a saber-toothed tiger of refined sensibilities.
Along the way, D’Leh gains the backing of a black tribe whose ranks have also been thinned by the slavers. More African desert folk join the march, so by the time they arrive at a city dominated by a towering pyramid under construction, the nomads have gathered a considerable army.
The lascivious desires of her captors notwithstanding, Evolet is being saved for delivery to the desert deity, a shrouded figure with a voice like the devil in “The Exorcist.” Gradually developing the instincts of a real leader, D’Leh bets that the thousands of slaves forced to work alongside mammoths pushing huge blocks up the pyramid will join his battle, and the sweeping shots of the back-breaking work and subsequent fighting are undeniably imposing.
All the same, in none of the film’s numerous eventful episodes does Emmerich demonstrate any skill or even interest in carefully building the drama to create anticipation or stir suspense. As with a pyramid, every sequence is just another undifferentiated block to be added to what’s already there. This happens, then that happens, with no scene-setting, nuance, grace notes or imaginative embellishment. The borderline ludicrous feel-good ending suggests that a certain African pyramid-building empire went the way of Troy.
Multiracial cast members make more impact by their looks than by any thesping efforts, although Strait has a bit of Colin Farrell’s dark-eyed watchfulness. Visual effects are of a high standard, as are locations provided by New Zealand, South Africa and Namibia. One wishes the same could be said of Emmerich and Harald Kloser’s script, which has the characters speaking relatively straightforward English, makes no attempt to develop any distinguishing linguistic characteristics and features the occasional howler, as when one warrior calms another by saying, “I understand your pain.”
This is a case where some madly primitive musical accompaniment could have set a much-needed otherworldly tone, circumstances that make the score by Kloser and Thomas Wander seem particularly banal. End credits run for 10 minutes.