“10,000 BC” does not deserve its bad rap.
It is not the worse reviewed film in director Roland Emmerich’s oeuvre (that distinction belongs to “Moon 44”), but it is perhaps his most infamous. “Boring” is a word that I often hear from casual moviegoers who have watched this flick. Indeed, I hear that adjective so frequently that “10,000 BC” has quickly become something even sadder than a guilty pleasure. I am sincerely ashamed of my affinity for this motion picture. If virtually everyone I know regards it as dull, what does it say about my taste that I enjoy it?
A quick summary: “10,000 BC” is an action-adventure epic set in the prehistoric era. It centers the story on a tribe of hunter-gatherers known as the Yagahl and a brave warrior, D’Leh (Steven Strait), who seeks the hand of a lovely woman believed to be destined for greatness, Evolet (Camilla Belle). In a plot that twists and turns more than the film’s convoluted geography (more on that in a moment), D’Leh is forced to travel the world so he can rescue Evolet and many other Yagahl from evil horse-raiders. The subsequent journey is packed with the kinds of encounters one would expect in the most riveting B-movie fare, from needing to overthrow the imperial cult of an enigmatic enrobed Atlantean known as The Almighty (Tim Barlow) to attacks by velociraptor-like phorusrhacidae.
How can a movie like this be regarded as boring?
Stupid, I absolutely agree. Like most of Emmerich’s movies, “!0,000 BC” is an amalgamation of conspiracy theories, from the aforementioned idea that Atlantis was a real continent (it was actually a thought experiment from Plato’s “Critias”) to the belief that a single lost civilization was the progenitor to the known influential ancient ones (Egypt, Greece, Persia, etc.) Its narrative takes the protagonists from the Ural Mountains to the tropics of Southeast Asia to the pre-construction pyramids in Egypt. Nothing about the story makes any sense to any viewer with a passing knowledge of geography, climatology, history or even common sense. Then again, it is worth noting that most of Emmerich’s movies are absurd; this does not diminish one’s ability to enjoy, say, the Area 51-conspiracy theories underpinning “Independence Day.”
The difference here, though, is that the script seems to turn people off. All of the characters are two-dimensional and the dialogue is purely functional. Most will acknowledge that “10,000 BC” has a moving score (composed by Thomas Wander and Harold Kloser, the latter of whom also co-wrote the film with Emmerich) and lush cinematography (Ueli Steiger) filmed in Namibia, South Africa, Thailand and New Zealand. But how can one care about the pretty visuals when the underlying story is so blah?
The key, I believe, is to not go into “10,000 BC” expecting sparkle. This is a somber epic, a tribute to the B-quality sword-and-sandal epics of the mid-20th century. Emmerich believes that this story has meaning, and as such levity is almost entirely scrubbed. (If you look closely, you will notice a brief testicular injury gag.) In a way, he isn’t wrong about that; the rudimentary narrative, told by a diverse cast and based on a number of cultures, is accessible to virtually everyone. The message is a noble one and broadly applicable, preaching the kind of universalist empathy that human beings should never do without. Along the way, the story keeps the action coming — mammoth hunts, navigating treacherous terrain, chucking spears at ominous baddies — and the viewer feels like they are joining D’Leh and Evolet on a sweeping melodrama.
I am not here to argue that “10,000 BC” should be anyone’s favorite movie. It certainly isn’t mine. (That distinction belongs to “Unbreakable.”) But it is a solidly good movie, a sincere Valentine to the best Stone Age fantasy fiction (Emmerich was inspired largely by his love of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Quest for Fire”) and a captivating travelogue. It is the reason why, on a four-star critics’ scale, the three-star review must exist.