If you subscribe to the auteur theory of filmmaking, you're going to have to carve out a little room for Roland Emmerich, too. The German director mostly makes movies about how things end (The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, the upcoming 2012) or begin (The Patriot).
With 10,000 B.C., he works in both bookends: The plot involves the prehistoric human transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural one. Woolly mammoths are dying out, and a tribe's survival is threatened. As one character helpfully defines the moment, "It's the beginning of the end."
Emmerich made the irresistible 1994 archaeological sci-fi pic Stargate and the execrable re-tooled Godzilla in '98. The two balance the scales, but the rest of his work has left me doubtful but willing to give him another chance. 10,000 B.C. doesn't tip the balance one way or the other.
10,000 B.C. is not a movie that lends itself to scrutiny. If you look close, you'll find racist overtones and blanket stupidity. At the beginning of the movie, we're told that swarthy tribal members will be saved by a young girl with blue eyes. Danger! As the film progresses, we encounter a bunch of Africans who stand to be freed by the leadership of, basically, a white guy. Also, in plot, dialogue, and characterization, this is not a smart film, reaching its nadir when the hero finds a saber-toothed tiger to be a wary ally rather than a predatory man killer.
And yet — those are the most important words in this review — despite everything, 10,000 B.C. is also a big ole slop-bucket of dumb fun.
At one point, the movie shows woolly mammoths helping build pyramids in Egypt. There are enough wrong things in that sentence to explode a history department grad assistant's brain, but why worry? Anachronistic spectacle has a place in this world too.
Steven Strait stars as D'Leh, a young hunter of the mountainous Yagahl tribe. His peers pick on D'Leh because his father, who left the tribe years before, is thought a coward. The tribe's spiritual leader prophesies the end of the mammoths, and a young girl will lead the group to a new way of life.
D'Leh and the other young hunters have a chance to prove themselves during a mammoth hunt. The one who kills the bull of the herd will claim the Great White Spear of the North (or something like that) to become the leader of the tribe. The chosen one will also get the blue-eyed girl, Evolet (Camilla Belle), as a bride.
D'Leh brings down a mastodon single-handedly. The next morning, a horde of Conan the Barbarian extras swoop in on horseback and take Evolet and the Yagahl men as slaves. With the aid of tribal leader TicTic (Cliff Curtis) and a few others, D'Leh goes on a rescue mission, which will take him hundreds of miles from home. Along the way, they encounter other groups of people and ways of life that are foreign to them. D'Leh also finds out that he's destined to do something suitably important.
The film's title is Christian-relevant, and there are all kinds of Old Testament plot points, including a slave who leads a people out of Egypt. When one character is sacrificially killed, his dead body lies, arms outstretched, across a wood beam.
The action set pieces are thrilling but not inspired. However, one sequence, featuring "terror birds," is particularly effective, as are scenes with the "Egyptian ruler/deity."
The film does manage to raise the hackles of intellectual interest as it shows prehistoric man encountering unfamiliar technologies. It's curious to see how important advances, such as horseback riding or agriculture, give one group a significant advantage over another.
But, when the film has a character inventing celestial navigation, the whole endeavor just seems so silly. On the other hand, that a man would travel 1,000 miles over mountain and through desert and jungle for Camilla Belle is completely plausible.