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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Time Out of Mind

The muddled world of 10,000 B.C.

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Theworld in those days was almost empty of humanity; a place of wideopen spaces tenanted by small bands of hunters and gatherers and settled villages where agriculture had been discovered. The woolly mammoth roamed the plains and other large creatures now extinct may have persisted into the dawn of Homo sapiens.

This is the world of 10,000 B.C., a muddled extravaganza from Roland Emmerich, director of Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. At first the story concerns a tribe whose existence is threatened by climate change. Will the mammoths that sustained their way of life for longer than anyone’s memory ever return? The suspense evaporates when the beasts arrive within a few scenes. The plot then takes an abrupt turn when slave-raiding horsemen attack and carry off half the tribe. A small band of warriors pursues the raiders and their captives to what seems to be the end of the Earth.

10,000 B.C. is also a love story. The thread that carries through the plot is the romance between D’Leh (Steven Strait), an outcast who must prove himself on a warrior’s quest, and Evolet (Camilla Belle), whom he has loved since childhood. She is among the captives bound and marched toward an uncertain fate. With a trio of companions, D’Leh crosses trackless snowy mountains and sandy deserts and the jungles in between to rescue her.

Mel Gibson set the gold standard for films about primeval cultures living in nature and confronted by technologically advanced civilizations with Apocalypto. Next to it, 10,000 B.C. is cheap brass at best. It might be said that Gibson had the advantage of using real people and settings. Characters communicate in something close to their actual language with subtitles allowing us to eavesdrop; the story was shaped by the lay of a land that has survived and was populated with the descendants of the characters. Emmerich and a cast of hack writers had to make it all up. 10,000 B.C. is set in a time before the written word and cities, when the inhabitants of the Earth left behind little but bones.

One thing is certain: No one at that time was speaking grammatically correct English with a slight accent, only to be confronted by slave-raiders jabbering in some other tongue and requiring subtitles. The cinematic convention of allowing the good guys in a strange culture to speak English is no longer acceptable.

Apparently, we are meant to relate to D’Leh’s tribe because they look like welltanned Euro-American Rastafarian tourists with the leisure to grow dreadlocks. We respect them because they are also behaving the way we imagine American Indians before Columbus. The storybook voice-over narrator (of whom we hear too much!) actually says “many moons had passed” and tribal spirituality is fashionably grounded in Earth spirits and shamanism, with a twilight medicine hut presided over by the enigmatic Old Mother. Just to be sure of where to place our sympathies, Evolet stares with startling blue eyes from a dusky face, reminding us of the famous National Geographic cover of the Afghan girl. Some of the scenes are handsomely photographed in snowy mountain settings. But the CGI animals, meant to be the impressive showpiece for the popcorn matinee crowd, wear a seen-it-before look and are up and down in terms of verisimilitude and excitement.

The best CGI scenes involve a jungle chase from what appear to be giant carnivorous ostriches. Scary, those big probing beaks swiveling on long necks. Many will be reminded of Jurassic Park’s similarly agile creatures. Despite its 21st-century technology,

10,000 B.C.’s story is an unconvincing pastiche of late-19th-century pulp fiction— Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard in contemporary dust jackets. The societies and civilizations depicted are a mishmash of plausible and impossible, fantastic and banal. Likewise, the melodrama between D’Leh and Evolet would look better on a silent screen, their faces emerging from expanding irises and their sentiments conveyed on ornate title cards. Curiously, D’Leh’s odyssey involves gathering African tribes for a final assault on the city of the slaveholders, a peculiarly antique fantasy of the white chief leading the darker races to victory. 10,000 B.C. is a movie out of time.

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