Released in 2008, the unimaginatively-named 10,000 BC was an almost complete critical failure. Although it made money, it is often regarded as Roland Emmerich’s worst movie – and this is the guy who can count schlock-epics like Moon 44 and 2012 as part of his ouvre. All but devoid of historical accuracy, this still could have been an entertaining adventure full of cavegirls and monsters like we used to get in the old days, but its own desire to be serious kept it from being as fun as it might have been.
The story tries hard to present itself as a kind of primordial hero’s journey, with Steven Strait giving a terrible performance as protagonist D’Leh, though to be fair, he doesn’t have much to work with and is saddled with a pretty stupid script. His tribe of unwashed, racially-diverse cave people live in an inhospitable-looking frozen steppe, and you have to wonder why they don’t go somewhere more convivial to hunter-gathering, since they don’t seem to have any contact with any other tribes, and don’t seem to have a reason to stay where they are. They hunt mammoths to survive, when there would be a lot of easier prey to hunt, and the one hunt we see tries hard to be exciting, but does not really manage it.
All the action sequences in this movie are strangely inert. Part of it is the poor CGI, which makes the prehistoric animals look awesome but completely unreal, so they are obviously not there. They are not the worst effects ever or anything, but they don’t look as good as other movies of the same period – not by a long shot. The other problem is just clunky, uninspired direction which makes the action predictable, as well as a PG-13 rating which makes sure you don’t see much blood or anything visceral – literally or figuratively.
Anyway, a bunch of dudes on horses ride in and attack the hovels, carry off D’Leh’s girlfriend Evolet, and start the plot in motion. Now, there were no people riding horses in 10,000 BCE, but from this point on the movie diverges farther and farther from any kind of reality, and this is actually what starts to make it more fun.
Because in the pursuit of his captured tribespeople, D’Leh finds that the riders are the servants of a more advanced civilization in the far south, led by a mysterious figure who is referred to as “The Almighty” and who is worshiped as a god. The slaves are gathered up to work on the immense, stone pyramids the Almighty seems to want to build for some reason. It is heavily implied that the Almighty is the last of the Atlanteans, and we get a glimpse of maps of the Atlantic Ocean as well as modern navigation tools like a compass and calipers.
While this twist carries us way outside anything resembling history, it actually makes this a great setup for a Sword & Sorcery movie. Pulps in general and Howard in particular were obsessed with the Stone Age, and Howard himself wrote several stories about Paleolithic heroes in “The Garden of Fear”, “The Valley of the Worm”, and in his first published story “Spear and Fang”. The idea of a stone age warrior confronted with the remnants of an ancient civilization bent on world conquest is a golden concept, and it should have made for an awesome, exciting movie.
In the end, the film just was trying too hard to take itself seriously. Rather than jump into the pulpiness of the central idea and run with it, the film hinted and hedged and tried to pass itself off as a serious recreation of the Stone Age, when it was really nothing of the kind. In an effort to stay “realistic” they just veered away from anything that could have made this movie awesome. We could have had an Atlantean sorcerer wielding magic powers and conjuring demons, warriors riding mammoths into battle, a deluge or maybe a volcano. If you combined this idea with the first five minutes of X-Men Apocalypse you would really have something to go with. In fact I may have just come up with next year’s storyline thinking about that.
10,000 BC was a movie that should have gone down in the tradition of movies like When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth or One Million BC, but instead it tried to be Quest For Fire and hobbled itself out of the gate. Proof of the fact that if you have a pulp idea, you have to give it pulp execution.