Watching 10,000 B.C., you may very well get the sensation (unless you normally only watch art house films and have been dragged to the movie by a more pop-culture-savvy friend) that you’ve been watching variations on this story since mammoths really did roam the Earth. A young man – here D’Leh (Steven Strait) – member of a small but noble tribe, doubts his leadership abilities but rises to the occasion when his village is ransacked and his people are killed and kidnapped, including the woman he loves (Camilla Belle). The young man sets out in pursuit of the attackers, meeting strange people and finding himself warring against a much more advanced civilization.
So what makes 10,000 B.C. different from other tales in this vein? Sad to say, not so much as you’d notice. The New Zealand locations are gorgeous, and director Roland Emmerich stages some great special effects shots, such as D’Leh and his comrades sneaking through the grass among a herd of mastodons. Then again, there are some very misjudged effects, such as a crucial-to-the-plot CGI saber-tooth tiger that simply does not appear to be at one with the other elements in its scenes, albeit that the tiger on its own moves very well. There are a number of touches of surprising visual beauty, but the characters are drawn simply and without nuance. Belle, a good actress, is wasted as a character who is shown to do so little that when she finally rises to the occasion, it’s hard to feel anything. Likewise, the script by Emmerich and Harald Kloser has various characters assuring D’Leh that he’s destined for great things, he’s his father’s son, his father was a good man and so on. Each of these exchanges is done solemnly and has the effect of making the action stall while we get a speech instead of nuance or plot twists or at least a good creature encounter. The best of these in the movie are reminiscent, in a good way, of Ray Harryhausen when the spectacle of man vs. giant astonishing beast was a thrill in its own right; the worst are more like scenes out of bad cable TV movies.
Strait is a game actor and acquits himself well, and Cliff Curtis gives credibility to the tribal leader. Ben Badra does a good job in what is the closest thing the movie has to a complicated character, a warlord who is brutal but willing to risk much for love.
For Stargate fans, there are a few tantalizing threads of possible connection between that film (Emmerich directed the original feature) and this one, but these are inconclusive, a build-up to a revelation that doesn’t have much resonance one way or the other. One goes into 10,000 B.C. hoping it will be a fun action spectacular, or at least spectacularly cheesy. It’s neither – there are occasional flashes of visual inspiration amid long stretches of non-innovative storytelling and characters who don’t greatly engage us. This just isn’t an epic for the ages.