10,000 B.C. is a suitably old-fashioned action story, which is emminently suitable to the sort of old-fashioned fantasy/adventure tale it tells, one that is set in the remote past, when Stonehenge was more or less new, and before even the pyramids were built. Depending upon, of course, which version of the past to which you subscribe. Nicely paced, there is also the requisite dash of mysticism as it considers the origins of myth as well as the spread of agriculture and how very cool the saber-toothed tiger must have been.
It all starts when the woolly mammoths start disappearing from the lands of the mammoth hunter, whose name implies the dependent nature of their relationship. Their shaman, Old Mother (Mona Hammond), invokes the spirits and learns that times will get worse, but that a sign will come and a warrior will arise and save them all. The sign is a girl with blue eyes, something unknown in this tribe, and her arrival is anything but auspicious. She’s found in the mountains clinging to a dead woman, her entire people wiped out by what Old Mother calls demons with four legs. Years pass, Evolet (Camilla Belle) grows up and grows sweet on D’Leh (Steven Strait), the outcast whose father abandoned the tribe years ago for reasons known only to the tribe’s chief, Tic’Tic (Cliff Curtis), who has taken the boy under his wing. D’Leh is sweet on Evolet, too, but in order to win her, he must win Tic’Tic’s white spear of authority in what everyone is calling the last mammoth hunt. If only it were as simple as bringing down a mammoth single-handed.
There are no fur bikinis here, no leather speedos, and no throbbing rock score. There is instead a respect for the received wisdom of Neolithic life with no glaring anachronisms of the sort to jolt the lay viewer. Hairdos are dreadlocks and it takes no stretch of the imagination to assume lice living on some of the characters. The attitude of nature towards humankind is one of complete indifference for its continual survival as anything more than a foodstuff.
The demons return, they are actually men on horseback, and a raiding party from a civilization that has domesticated animals, learned weaving, and have need for slaves. That latter obtained by raiding parties to the far north. D’Leh escapes, but Evolet is among those taken and so there is nothing for it but for him to track her down, and all the hunters taken with her, the ones on whom the tribe relies for survival, save the tribe, get the girl, and start a legend. This makes for some truly lively hunting sequences. Mammoths being outsmarted, but not by much, by the tribe, and later, on the trek south the tribesmen themselves, as well as the raiders, by a creature that is more unexpected than impossible, and one that makes an excellent case that dinosaurs still walk among us, but in a radically different form. The face off between D’Leh and the saber-tooth smacks just a little too much of an iconic moment in ALIEN, but redeems itself by going on to glorify how amazing those extinct felines were.
Naturally, there are prophecies involved, most of which seem to point to D’Leh. His ultimate destination is the appropriately menacing monikered Mountain of God, from which, to add to the sense of dread, no one has ever returned. It helps that along the way he invents astral navigation, at least for his tribe and the army of Africans who have joined him.
Emmerich, who directed and co-wrote the script, has peopled his cast of Neolithic hunter-gatherers, with actors whose Caucasian leanings are not always apparent. The result is a proto-group that would be as home in the arctic as the land between the Tigris and Euphrates, the shores of the Ganges, or the Great Plains of the American west. As they move over the great mountains, the continent in question is definitively Africa, where our intrepid hunters look with befuddlement on the tools and products of agriculture. The proto-civilizations centered on the Mountain of God are a free association of Tibetan and Hindu, among others. The speculations of the captives about who they their captors are is a piquant pastiche of the most persistent theories about the beginnings of civilization that aren’t found in the standard history texts.
10,000 B.C. avoids irony and the worst excesses of heroic dialogue. It’s strictly a popcorn flick version of Joseph Campell’s hero’s journey that looks great even as it plays fast and very loose with geography, biology, and anything else that gets in its way.