Saturday, July 12, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: 10,000 BC

"Some truths do not survive the ages," admonishes the gravel-voiced narrator (Omar Sharif) of 10,000 BC, the first film of 2008 to cross the two-hundred million dollar mark. "Only time can teach us what is true and what is legend," the same narrator also pointedly suggests.

You think he's trying to tell us something?

These words are, essentially, director Roland Emmerich's attempt to inoculate himself and his production from carping film critics who complain that his prehistoric film - a heroic love poem - is historically inaccurate. Good luck with that one, Roland. Let me know how that works out for you...

Even with the opening disclaimer, it is extraordinarily difficult to deny that this film is amazingly, recklessly, wantonly, brazenly inaccurate. Sorry.

For instance, the film's events (a journey across several continents, it seems...) takes place in 10,000 BC, yet the main protagonist, D'Lea (Steven Strait) ends up battling Egyptian slavers on the plains of Giza (by the Nile), against the backdrop of the Sphinx of Giza, and the Great Pyramids (under construction....)

Now Roland, my friend, the Pyramids were likely constructed sometime between 2589 and 2566 BC. And the Sphinx? Perhaps around 1400 BC. Is D'Lea secretly using a Stone Age D'Lorean to time travel?

D'Lea's village is also attacked by Egyptian warlords on horseback, but the domestication of horses for man's use likely did not occur until somewhere around 5000 BC, right? And the use of sailing ships (deployed by Egyptians here too) likely occurred somewhere around 4000 BC. Jeez.

Still, give the film some plaudits. In depicting the opening of the Mesolithic Age, 10,000 BC does capture some of the events we understand to have occurred at that time: the extinction of the Woolly Mammoth, for example, and the alleged extinction of the still-controversial "brother of man, homo floresiensis (here depicted as a possibly psychic Old Mother). 10,000 BC also dramatizes the glacier melts of approximately 9600 BC, when many lands in Europe became more habitable. 10,000 BC? 9600 BC? What's a few hundred years between friends?

And, I must point out in defense of 10,000 BC, that the goofy stupidity of the film itself is matched, in large part, by the arrogance of swaggering mainstream film critics, who chose not to complain about these (myriad...) historical accuracies but instead laughed and savaged the film because the cavemen like D'Lea and his kin spoke modern English. (Tee hee. Tee fucking hee). I mean, that's a fair criticism?

Let's examine that. What language did the Ancient Romans of Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000) speak? (Hint: Perfect English). What did the Ancient Spartans of 300 speak? (Hint, same thing). What do the extra-terrestrial Romulans of Star Trek speak? (Ditto!). What do Nazis speak in most war movies? Russians? What do historical Americans speak in most period pieces? In Westerns and so forth? Yep, modern English. If mainstream critics feel that cave men speaking English in a movie designed for English-speaking audiences is a disqualifier in terms of quality, then legitimate criticism has devolved to the Mesolithic era along with Emmerich's storytelling abilities.

There are plenty of reasons to deride 10,000 BC -- and boy do I mean plenty -- but the fact that stars Steven Strait and Camilla Belle speak our language is surely not one of them. My primary problem with the film is that it is unremittingly dull, emotionally flat, and over-long. The whole thing just feels empty to me, perhaps because the primary characters seem to possess no inner life or individual spirit. We watch them suffer; we watch them perform heroic acts, we watch them speak of "love," yet somehow we don't truly feel their pain or enjoy their triumphs. There's something emotionally-remote about 10,000 BC; something that prevents the viewer from taking firm interest even in the love story.

I've tried to pinpoint my problems with the film in terms of specifics, and here's what I've come up with: As a thinking viewer, I had a difficult time suspending disbelief when the cave-men encountered the Pyramids, and found the slaves lorded over by someone who was -- apparently -- a fugitive from technologically-advanced Atlantis. It sort of reminds of me of funny old time travel TV shows where the writers felt they had to shoehorn every major historical event of the 1930s into an episode set in 1933. You know what I mean? If you miraculously ended up in 1933, what are the chances you would meet a young Hitler, bump into Clark Gable, and dodge a stockbroker falling out of his window during the stock market crash? If you were lucky (very lucky...), you might encounter one of the three. 10,000 BC simply tries too hard to shoe-horn in thousands of years of human history when it isn't necessary (witness the brilliant Quest for Fire [1982] ).

The scope of the story should have been scaled back. Why not just tell the story of D'Lea's people; of the end of "nomadism" and the beginning of agriculturalism? Why not tell the story of survival when the environment changed so rapidly, and the glaciers melted (sort of a Day Before Yesterday)?

You know, before 10,000 BC was over, I was certain D'Lea would unearth a stargate in the sand and meet James Spader and that kid from The Crying Game...

But all that's just really my own intellectual masturbation. (Ewww). I mean, Gladiator is completely inaccurate in terms of the fate of historical figures and governments (Rome became a Republic again after Commodus was killed in the gladiator ring by a slave?! -- oh, I didn't realize...), and yet I find the Scott film an emotionally-involving effort, rich with human interest. So clearly, we can overlook questions of historical accuracy when we want to, can't we? So the matter must simply be that the characters here aren't interesting or dynamic enough to hold the screen in 10,000 BC.

Also, I found the special effects distracting. The early portions of the film make extensive (and I mean EXTENSIVE) use of green screen in moments that wouldn't seem to require such visual gymnastics. The production company shot the film in Namibia, New Zealand and Thailand, so what's the deal with all the overt studio fakery? I wonder if some footage was damaged or something. Whatever the cause, some of the green screen shots in the film's quieter moments (dialogue scenes for instance), I found jarring, risible and easily detectable.

The CGI in 10,000 BC is highly variable too. The first appearance of a Woolly Mammoth herd is ultra-impressive, but the stampede is terrible. The saber-tooth tiger (of the poster) is terribly fake in detail and movement. Again, I hasten to add that bad special effects aren't an automatic disqualifier for me in terms of liking/not liking a film, so the fault is elsewhere. These things wouldn't seem so important if we *felt* the story along with the characters.

Watching the film, I felt for much of the running time that 10,000 BC was a pale (very pale...) imitation of Conan the Barbarian (1982), only with no Conan in the picture. Just imagine how dull that would be...and you might get a sense of why this movie fails. It attempts to tell us a "legend" of a "great hero" but D'Lea is just... D'ull.

And also, the rules of this world are not carefully established by the screenwriters or by Emmerich. Is the Atlantean a god from another planet? Is the Old Mother legitimately psychic? Is there magic in the world (suggested by Evolet's miraculous third-act resurrection and the fulfillment of a long-held prophecy), or not? The film never settles on an approach or single vision. Is this prehistoric adventure or magical prehistoric fantasy?


Also, the film's other major deficit is the total lack of self-awareness and humor. Humor is an essential quality in the human equation. It existed in caveman times, just as it exists now. Humor is a coping mechanism; it is a catharsis. Yet in addition to being very flat, 10,000 BC is very, very dour and serious. A moment or two of humor might have made D'Lea's long journey a bit more bearable.

10,000 BC received reviews much more cruel and savage than it deserved. By no means is this a good film, and by no means do I recommend you see it, but jeez -- it received worse reviews than The Love Guru did!!! I found the film dull, lugubrious and inaccurate, but is it the worst thing I've ever seen? Not by a long shot. It's not even the worst thing I've seen this year. The film isn't good or exciting, but nor is it offensive, so I don't really comprehend the derisive hostility towards it. Hollywood has a long history, after all, of making historically inaccurate, silly caveman movies. A lot of people I know cherish those films. A lot of people I know would rush to the theater just to see a silly caveman movie...

I will say this, ultimately, for 10,000 BC: your enjoyment of it may vary entirely on your actual (or mental) age. If this film came out in 1979, aired on the 4:30 PM movie, and I was ten years old...I would have absolutely loved it. There's a great chase scene with giant ostriches (or "Terror Birds"), pitting man against prehistoric monster, and were I an unjaded kid, I would have really, really dug it.

But by the same token, once the mammoth stampede ended; once the saber-tooth tiger was tamed, once the terror birds turned the fleeing cave-men into lunch, I think -- even as a child -- I would have found the rest of the film really, really boring.

Where's Raquel Welch and her fur bikini when you need her?

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