Directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich, who's previously given us Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 B.C. offers audiences the prospect of epic action on a canvas as broad as human history; what it delivers is another matter entirely. In an age where computer-generated effects make spectacle possible, and audiences reward blood-and-thunder films like Gladiator and 300 at the box office, greenlighting 10,000 B.C. must have seemed logical. I can imagine someone pitching the film, to paraphrase Team America: World Police, by saying "It's like 300 .... plus 9,700!"
But as Emmerich's films have always demonstrated, suggesting that spectacle can make up for weak storytelling is like suggesting that having a great haircut can make up for being born without a skeleton. And, so it is in 10,000 B.C., where a variety of off-the-rack plot points and generic heroic journeys are decorated with computer-generated baubles like wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers and massed mobs, shiny hollow Christmas ornaments hung on a bare, ruined tree. Emmerich co-wrote 10,000 B.C. with Harald Klosser and put an army of technicians to work on the movie, but the end result simply feels like threads and themes and moments borrowed from other films.
10,000 B.C. begins in the snowy, mountainous homelands of a tribe of hunter-gatherers who survive by hunting the wooly mammoths who range through their valley every year. The tribe's shaman, Old Mother (Mona Hammond), has a prophecy foretelling the end of the tribe in the near future, but also sees that the lover of the blue-eyed girl Evolet will save them. Watching from afar is D'Leh, whose father is leaving his son to go beyond the mountains to look for a future home for the tribe. In time, Evolet (Camilla Belle) and D'Leh (Steven Strait) grow up, and D'Leh takes part in the annual mammoth hunt; he seizes glory and claims Evolet as his own, but that night the "Four-Legged Demons" -- horseback-riding slavers from afar -- ravage the village, killing and capturing many ... including Evolet. This aggression, for D'Leh, will not stand, so he and great hunter Tic'tic (Cliff Curtis) go in pursuit, across the mountains, to the lands from which none have ever returned.
And there's nothing wrong with this plot, certainly; D'Leh gets to travel the world and work out his daddy issues while meeting new people and following after his love, while the bad guys get to snap and curse at their captured slaves while whipping them from dangerous locale to exotic environment before pressing them into labor at "The Mountains of the Gods." But 10,000 B.C. never generates the energy or excitement that would elevate it to the level of epic action, or gives in to the silly shamelessness that would mark it a guilty pleasure.
Emmerich has suggested that Jean-Jacques Annaud's Quest for Fire was a major influence on his film. When you remember how Annaud's film invented a language for its characters, that comparison goes out the window as soon as D'Leh and Evolet speak their halting lines in semi-accented English. 10,000 B.C. is actually a lot closer to Clan of the Cave Bear, another film that depicts ancient people whose political philosophies, romantic ideas and dental hygiene are all so modern as to be suspect. Say what you will about Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (and I can say plenty), it at least picked one civilization and historical era and stuck with it; 10,000 B.C. skips from place to place, era to era, like a child idly flipping through the pages of a coffee table book on ancient civilizations before making up a rambling story.
And no, we don't go to a movie like 10,000 B.C. for anthropological and historical accuracy; we go for the fun stuff: the action, the effects, the fights, the juice. The problem is that 10,000 B.C. doesn't have much fun stuff, either. The film's sole nod to mysticism comes with Old Mother, who spends much of the film back home in mammoth valley channeling the experiences of her far-flung fellow tribe members; this mostly consists of her sitting fireside making the same wide-eyed facial expression Richard Pryor used when pretending to be scared of everything. The action sequences are few and far between. The bad guys are also shamefully generic; Ben Badra's character is simply credited as "Warlord," while Marco Khan's henchman, one eye clouded by past battle, is credited as "One-Eye." (For my part, in the absence of the film providing me with actual names to call them, I simply mentally referred to them as, respectively, "Growly McGee" and "Dead-Eye Jones.") Emmerich and Klosser seem to have forgotten one of the simplest lessons of Screenwriting 101: Writing better bad guys -- people who want things, who may be conflicted, who have pasts and tics and personalities -- doesn't make your hero less interesting in comparison; it makes him (or her) more interesting in comparison.
And D'Leh needed something to make him more interesting; Strait has great abs and hair, but he's not given much more to do besides stride towards the camera in slow-mo and look determinedly hunky. Oh, and invent celestial navigation. Bell -- a talented presence in The Ballad of Jack and Rose -- is reduced to looking out longingly from under her dreadlocks. 10,000 B.C. is plainly trying to borrow from other films -- the muscular liberalism of Gladiator, the mythic majesty of the Lord of the Rings films, the vulgar vitality of 300, the chase structure of Apocalypto, the Hollywood history of Clan of the Cave Bear and Quest for Fire and even the anachronistic action of One Million Years B.C., where Raquel Welch faced stop-motion dinosaurs. 10,000 B.C. is too sprawling and super-sized to reach us as drama, though, and too thin and threadbare to excite us as entertainment; it's huge but hollow, small but slender, and wholly forgettable.