Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Roland Emmerich most popular films have been disasters in every sense of the word. In Independence Day, the United States battled an alien invasion with nuclear weapons, computer viruses and Randy Quaid, to devastating effect. If that was meant to be reassuring, it wasn’t. The Day After Tomorrow was even more depressing. This was Emmerich’s green movie, in which the end of the Earth began with the destruction of Scotland, half-observed by some scientists who were also watching a Champions League match in which Celtic were beating Manchester United 3-1: he gives, and then he takes away.
In both those films, Emmerich hitched himself to special effects with such abandon that it seemed churlish to resist. His stories were not over-endowed with subtlety. In fact, they were almost defiantly stupid. But they were big in every other way.
How refreshing to report that Emmerich has excelled himself with 10,000 BC. It is more ambitious than anything he has done before. Happily, it is also stupider.
The action takes place amid the mountains of pre-history, where the Yagahl, a tribe of decent savages, find themselves locked in a dreadful battle for survival. They are a tough people, with dreadlocks and neat goatee beards, who rely on the arrival of giant mammoths for their continued existence. Sometimes the mammoths come, sometimes they don’t. Lately, the narrator (Omar Sharif) notes, they have been coming later and later, “and there were times when they did not come at all”.
The Yagahl may be unsophisticated, but they understand a bad portent when they see one, not least when their mystical leader, Old Mother (Mona Hammond) – Mo from EastEnders with a Ouija board and a suit made of animal bones – issues a grave warning about “four-legged demons who will put an end to our world”. The only hope rests in “the child with blue eyes”.
Moving along several years, the mammoths arrive, and the warriors of the Yagahl rush out to try and snare one, which is tricky, as these are not your standard issue mammoths, they are gigantic beasts with jaggy tusks and a habit of galloping menacingly towards men in loin-cloths. However, they are easily scared. When the great warrior Tic’Tic (Cliff Curtis) shouts “arrrrrrrr!”, the herd turns and runs in the opposite direction. The bull mammoth is killed by D’Leh (Steven Strait) a boy who has been shunned by the tribe, because his father abandoned them in heroic circumstances which they have never understood. His prize is the White Spear, and the hand of the blue-eyed girl Evolet (Camilla Belle), who is a refugee from another tribe who have been massacred by the four-legged demons. “Ya!” the tribespeople shout. “Ya!”
But D’Leh and Evolet are destined to be pre-history’s version of Romeo and Juliet, because D’Leh feels unworthy of his prize. (The mammoth ran onto his spear, and he would have run away if his hand hadn’t been caught in the net). So he gives up the girl and the spear, and then the white rain comes and – as Omar notes – “with the white rain came the four-legged demons”. The white rain is snow, and the four-legged demons are Hell’s Angels on horseback. “I like your spirit,” the nastiest one says to Evolet, “but I will have to break it.” (Despite Old Mother’s pre-eminence, feminism has yet to make inroads amongst these primitives). So the four-legged demons kidnap the girl and scarper, leaving the menfolk of the Yagahl, and especially D’Leh, feeling mighty peeved.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal too much of what happens after that, but it does involve a long and dangerous trek across inhospitable terrain, a fight in the long grass with a flock of carnivorous wolf-dodos, and a perilous negotiation in a flooded pit with a sabre-tooth tiger. D’Leh – whose naivety is his charm – notes that the tiger is about to drown, and tells the cat “do not eat me when I set you free”. Oddly, the tiger obeys, and when he encounters it later – in the midst of a scrap with some African-style natives – D’Leh does a bit of special pleading which earns him the respect of the warriors with the bones through their chins. “You speak to the spear-tooth,” they say, and serve him a hot dinner fit for a king. An alliance is forged, and they set off to look for the home of the Almighty, who has been building pyramids on an industrial scale in the Mountains of the Gods.
It’s all nonsense of course, but it’s nonsense full of stampeding mammoths and bleak landscapes and burning temples and mumbo-jumbo about the power of myth. It’s not about pre-history at all: Emmerich is stuck on re-creating the boyish wonder and the naïve charm of the matinee serial. And – Ya!- he succeeds.