About an hour into 10,000 B.C., a young boy prisoner is being shipped away to a far-off desert. His captors are mean, tall, and swarthy, and one, called One Eye (Marco Khan) for obvious reason, is especially brutal, given to whipping and kicking his charges. Still, Baku (Nathanael Baring) is spunky and steadfast, certain that his savior will yet appear. And indeed, he is rewarded, for lo! upon a distant dune, Baku spots D’Leh (Steven Strait), hollering as the ship bearing the captives heads off downriver. Baku yells back and smiles broadly, even as his young companion wonders if D’Leh will actually follow and save them. Oh yes, nods Baku. D’Leh is in love with yet another captive, the beautiful, blue-eyed Evolet (Camilla Belle), and to illustrate, the boy makes a kissy-face and writhes in exaggerated pleasure, before he grimaces at the mushy thought.
It’s an unexpectedly light moment in this ponderous exercise. Baku’s quite charming, and his understanding of this tiresome plot is dead-on. The hero will save the girl he has loved since childhood, fulfill his destiny, and oh yes, in the process also wreak vengeance on the nasty slavers. Even as Baku comprehends his dire situation, he also mocks the cliché. Thank goodness for small amusements.
Alas, it is awfully small: the film cuts back to D’Leh, humorless and determined to complete his self-appointed mission, accompanied by his new best friends, hundreds of desert tribesman who have only just met him. “We will find the head of the snake,” he asserts (using tribal-poetry-speak for “river”), and we will free our people.” D’Leh, in other words, has no idea that he’s living inside a formula epic, and so for him, every decision, every utterance, every spear chuck, is a matter of life and death. Unfortunately, he’s mostly confirmed in his view of the world, as the fellows walking with him across miles of deserts and mountains look to him for guidance and courage. When one chief initially thinks he looks too young to lead them, D’Leh has a snappy comeback: “Tell him,” he says to a translator, “I’m older than I look” — apparently this is all he needs to say, for the chief assents and a crowd of warriors claps their spears and shields in approval.
D’Leh might be forgiven for believing his own hype, as his destiny is set up from the first scenes of 10,000 B.C., narrated too seriously by Omar Sharif. Though D’Leh screws up a mammoth hunt early on, and so misses the chance to lead the Yagahl tribe, carry the White Spear, and, no small thing, wed his beloved Evolet, he is plainly the golden boy. Though he’s been taunted throughout his childhood by bullies who condemn him as the “son of a coward” (the dad who apparently abandoned the tribe when D’Leh was little, leaving no wife in sight), he has also been mentored by his dad’s closest friend, the noble Tic ‘Tic (Cliff Curtis, who is exponentially subtler than this part). “Be as your father,” advises Tic ‘Tic, after assuring the son that dad really was pursuing a valiant end, looking after his community, even beyond his family.
So that he might follow this advice, D’Leh is affiliated with a legend of his own (Sharif calls it the one about the “child with blue eyes,” namely, Evolet). Tic ‘Tic trains up D’Leh to be honest even when he has the chance to lie and prosper, and is the first to sign on to retrieve the girl — as well as assorted other tribespeople who go unnamed and provide reaction shots whenever the lead warlord (Affif Ben Badra) makes clear his lusty inclinations toward Evolet (“I like your spirit,” he snarls at her, “but I have to break it”).
Before you start thinking this plot sounds like The Searchers, director Roland Emmerich’s own sci-fied Stargate (1994), or even The Ice Age, you should know that it offers neither an intelligent critique of racism nor a kumbaya happy ending. Instead, it follows more in the footsteps of 300, an unforgivably ignorant pitting of stereotypical villains against beautiful heroes. D’Leh doesn’t quite have the Spartans’ abs, but he is light-skinned and movie-star handsome (his hard-muscled arms suggest he’s spent time in an antediluvian gym). His peers, including the bullies and young Baku, are slightly darker, but the warlords are long-nosed and decidedly Arabic, their language subtitled (unlike the conveniently English-speaking Yagahl), and the desert tribesmen are dark-skinned, poor good people waiting to be saved by a light warrior-messiah.
You’d think, in 2008, that such a scheme wouldn’t get past a treatment, let alone make it through casting, costuming, and makeup. But 10,000 B.C. is audaciously backwards. While the Yagahl are ostensibly in some sort of harmony with nature (they hunt mammoths with spears and on foot, respecting their digitized majesty), the villains not only steal slaves away from other tribes, but also force them, along with mammoths in disrespectful harnesses, to build pyramids in honor of their leader, called a “god” (Tim Barlow). D’Leh, quite in harmony, wins the respect of the black Naku tribe, as well as their leader Nakudu (Joel Virgel), when they witness his interaction with a sabertooth tiger (a wholly unconvincing furry effect). It so happens that just before the Naku decide to kill D’Leh and Tic ‘Tic for trespassing, D’Leh has had an accidental close encounter with the tiger, setting it free from a trap rather than killing it. When the tiger appears for a second time, D’Leh commands it to leave him alone: “You must remember me, I gave you life.” Not only does the cat remember him, but it also understands English, and indeed, lets him go. Way to impress the credulous locals!
Such is the illogic of 10,000 B.C., that such silliness passes as “legend.” The Naku happen to have a rock painting that depicts precisely the scene they witness, a savior who can “speak with the Spear Tooth.” (He has less luck when facing a flock of giant reptilian emus, fierce, clabbering raptor-wannabes: they only want to rip him limb from limb, and his puny human buddies too.) No matter his magical connection with felines, D’Leh stands out mightily among the many dark bodies who follow his lead. Surely it’s only coincidence that the sign of his accomplishment is a White Spear.