10,000 BC: Roland Emmerich’s Primitive Epos, Narrated by Omar Shariff

Whether set in particular historical eras, or functioning as more universal tales, Roland Emmerich’s movies offer big, sweeping visual entertainment that’s based on general myths rather than specific contexts.

At once a product and a victim of filmic globalization, he’s a director committed to delivering old-fashioned, undemanding escapist fare–at all costs. But the costs are high: In the name of visceral thrills and frills, he sacrifices narrative logic, emotionally involving stories, intriguing characters grounded in any reality or with any semblance to real individuals.

Thematically, his new formulaic movie “10,000 BC” is more in the vein of the “Stargate” than “Independence Day,” “The Patriot” or “The Day After Tomorrow.” But more than anything else, the epic serves as a reminder of how far superior was “Apocalypto,” Mel Gibson’s similarly-themed primitive tale.

Emmerich’s movie recycles in obvious and calculated ways elements of action spectacles, depicting huge mammoth hunts, epic battles, spectacular vistas of giant pyramids and lost civilizations, while interweaving into them threads of myths and mysticism and shallow Freudian tales of fathers and sons. “10,000 BC” blends together the genres of primitive historical epics with elements of man vs. nature and man vs. animal sagas, resulting in a mishmash of a movie that will disappoint critics and mature audiences and will really please only young indiscriminating viewers.

The film is advertised as an engrossing odyssey into a mythical age of prophesies and gods, when spirits rule the land and mighty mammoths shake the earth. Set in a remote but unspecified mountain tribe, the story is extensively narrated by Omar Shariff, whose voice over is unnecessary, sort of glue between the disparate episodes.

The protagonist is a young hunter named D’Leh (handsomer Steven Strait, who may become action star), who as a boy finds his love in the beautiful Evolet (Camilla Belle), vowing to protect and love her for the rest of his life. When a band of vaguely mysterious warlords raid his village and kidnap Evolet, D’Leh leads a small group of hunters to pursue the warlords to the end of the world, literally. As they venture into unknown lands, the group discovers that there are other civilizations and that mankind’s reach is greater than they had ever known.

Driven by destiny, the unlikely warriors battle prehistoric predators while braving the harshest elements. At their heroic journey’s end, they uncover a lost civilization and learn that their ultimate fate lies in an empire, defined by great pyramids reaching into the skies. Here they take their stand against a tyrannical god, who has brutally enslaved their own, and it is here that D’Leh finally comes to understand that he has been called to save not only Evolet, but all of civilization.

The screenplay, written by Roland Emmerich and first-timer Harald Kloser (who’s also credited as co-producer and co-composer), is a shamble pile of clichés. Since the subject matter is “early” (read primitive) man, the scenarists have taken liberties in telling implausible, preposterous heroic stories that glorify one character, a single man assigned and challenged with a series of tasks that also serve as rites of passage toward a new destiny and identity.

“10,000 BC” is a journey to a time when mysticism and the spirit world were presumably a real part of life. The tribe is held together by a spiritual leader, Old Mother (Mona Hammond) and the hunter who carries the White Spear, who bears responsibility for feeding and protecting the tribe. Seeing the future of the Yagahl, Old Mother prophesied that a great hunter would rise and with Evolet lead his people to a new life before the mammoths disappear from the earth. No one believes it will be D’Leh, whose own father mysteriously abandoned the tribe when he was a boy.

Structurally, to reinforce the yarn’s spiritual element, each chapter begins and/or ends with the close-up of a prophet, Old Mother. Be warned: Some of Old Mother’s scenes are quite funny in an unintentional way.

The saga unfolds as a road movie with periodic stops, during which set-pieces are presented; whether they belong to the narrative or not, or whether they interrupt the flow of events, seems to be of secondary importance. At each encounter, the group is joined by other tribes that have been attacked by the slave raiders. As a result, D’Leh’s once-small band of four gradually turns into a massive army.

The saga gets worse and worse as it goes along, and the last reel is particularly silly, a mishmash of chapter that’s a throwback to the infantile historical sagas that Hollywood used to make with B-stars like Victor Mature, with more than a few elements “borrowed” from Gibson’s “Apocalypto.”

Though he has given up the White Spear, D’leh refuses to back down, and is ultimately joined by Tic-Tic and his rival, Ka-ren (Mo Zainal), and the young Baku, who refuses to be left behind. Their treacherous mission takes them across snow-swept mountains into the Lost Valley, where they have do battle the slave raiders and some mysterious terror birds that look like a cross between dinosaurs and ostriches, hunting like sharks, coming out of and then disappearing into the grass.

The recurrent theme of father and son prevails here, too. Eventually, the journey takes them to a new tribe–the Naku–and its leader, Nakudu (Joel Virgel), whose own son was also taken by the slave raiders.

Starving dehydrated and in conflict, they reach desert plain where giant pyramids cut into the skies and legions of slaves’ labor in fear of a man who calls himself a god. Placing a heavy symbolic layer, Emmerich uses the pyramids as symbols of human arrogance, contrasting them with the lifestyles of the mammoth hunters, who have respect for the animals they hunt.

It’s a this point that D’Leh’s transformation takes place, realizing that he must cease being a hunter and become the leader he was destined to be. Through his journey to the end of the world, and by abolishing a corrupt empire based on slavery, our hero assumes collective responsibility that goes beyond him and his girl.

Emmerich has depicted vast-scale alien wars and environmental catastrophe in some of the most successful blockbusters of the past decade, including “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” but also made boring and disastrous flick like “Godzilla.” Here, rehashing a myth about a hero who emerges from an isolated tribe to challenge an empire, Emmerich seeks to transport audiences into a sweeping adventure and does so in a mindless way.

Like most of Emmerich’s films, “10,000 BC” is well-produced on a strictly technical level. The behind-the-scenes creative team includes director of photography Ueli Steiger, production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos, editor Alexander Berner, costume designers Odile Dicks-Mireaux and Renee April, and composers Harald Kloser and Thomas Wander. The production was shot in the cold and snow of a New Zealand winter, in the hot and humid climate of Cape Town, South Africa, and in the arid desert landscape of the African nation of Namibia.

Cast

D’Leh – Steven Strait
Evolet – Camilla Belle
Tic’Tic – Cliff Curtis
Nakudu – Joel Virgel
Warlord – Ben Badra
Ka’ren – Mo Zainal
Baku – Nathanael Baring
Old Mother – Mona Hammond
One-Eye – Marco Khan
Moha – Reece Ritchie
Lu’Kibu – Joel Fry
Narrator – Omar Sharif

Credits

Warner release, presented in association with Legendary Pictures of a Centropolis production. Produced by Michael Wimer, Roland Emmerich, Mark Gordon.
Executive producers, Harald Kloser, Sarah Bradshaw, Tom Karnowski, Thomas Tull, William Fay, Scott Mednick.
Co-producers, Ossie von Richthofen, Aaron Boyd. Directed by Roland Emmerich.
Screenplay, Emmerich, Harald Kloser.
Camera : Ueli Steiger.
Editor: Alexander Berner.

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 110 Minutes.