No doubt your history teacher failed to tell you of the long-lost Yagahl tribe, which apparently thrived on snowy mountainsides 6,000 years before Mike Huckabee believes the earth even existed, and consisted of one Jamaican (Mona Hammond), one Maori (Cliff Curtis), and a whole lot of white people sporting dreadlocked wigs and dirt on their faces in order to appear more ethnic. The aspiring hero of this tribe was D'Leh (Steven Strait) – pronounced “delay,” which is pretty funny considering how needlessly slow the story sometimes becomes – who risked everything for the love of the only woman in the world with blue eyes (Camilla Belle). Her name was Evolet, and we're told that means “the promise of life” in whatever made-up language these people are supposed to be speaking.
“Only time can teach us what is truth and what is legend” begins an invisible narrator, voiced by Omar Sharif with no apparent connection to the story at hand (not much time, though – takes about 5 seconds to figure out that “truth” isn't an issue here). As in 300, this is supposed to signal that what we're seeing is a sort of campfire tale, and exaggeration that doesn't require literal historical accuracy. Unlike in 300, the purpose of the telling never figures into the actual film. But if you didn't already know that woolly mammoths didn't build the pyramids, it's nice that they gave you an extra reason to be skeptical.
D'Leh is all brooding and attitude because his father left the tribe long ago and was branded a coward. The fact that the hot blue-eyed chick loves him is small consolation, especially since he has to win her hand formally by slaying a mammoth, or rather, a “manic” or “manoch,” as they call them here, depending upon which particular fake accent is being used at any given time – the Yagahl speak English with an inflection that ranges from fake-African to fake-Russian, sometimes within the same sentence.
Anyway, D'Leh manages to slay a manic manoch, but feels like he didn't earn it, because he actually was scared and tried to escape but couldn't. The way they kill the beasts, incidentally, is pretty funny – rather than simply select one that's grazing and spear him to death on the spot, they run towards the whole herd yelling, causing a stampede, during which they try to catch one with a net. Unlike price-shopping at Geico, this task is apparently not so easy a caveman can do it.
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While D'Leh is still feeling inadequate, Evolet gets kidnapped by evil “four-legged demons” (i.e. guys on horses), in a moment that's a rather blatant crib from CONAN the BARBARIAN. This gives D'Leh the chance to prove himself, and he heads off on a perilous quest with best friend Tic Tic (Curtis, a real breath freshener in a mass of mediocre thespianship). Very fortunately for the sake of drama, there exists within walking distance a jungle and a desert, all inhabitant by various tribes of black and brown people, who eagerly follow the dirty white boy D'Leh into battle to rescue his girlfriend, and, as an entirely secondary matter, free a whole mess of slaves from the clutches of the pyramid builders, who, in a gratuitous nod to one of director Roland Emmerich's other movies, are rumored to be “from the stars.” This has not given them the intelligence to realize that woolly mammoths are ice creatures and would not survive in a desert environment, but fortunately Emmerich doesn't have that intelligence either, so it all works out. (This is what happens when your co-screenwriter, Harald Kloser, is a composer who wrote a song for Falco, though I must admit he's still superior to ID4/GODZILLA scribe Dean Devlin).
ANTICIPATED KNEE-JERK READER REACTION: “Quit being all critical of the plot and acting! I just want to turn my brain off and enjoy cavemen fighting monsters!”
KNEE-JERK CRITICAL RESPONSE: Fair enough, but be aware that what you describe is maybe 20 minutes out of a 109-minute film. Emmerich knows his money shots: any time he throws some mastodons or giant dodos on the screen for a little beast-battlin' action, he has my attention. The Sabertooth, though, or “speartooth” as they call it here, never fights anybody. D'Leh finds it trapped, lectures it about not eating him (honest to god, he even wags his finger), and sets the fanged feline free. Big kitty remembers this later and spares him. The CG rendering of saber-tooths has not evolved since the first FLINTSTONES movie, it seems.
But Emmerich's lack of skill with actors really shows during the long moments of downtime in-between – Strait desperately needs direction, and doesn't seem to be getting it. This shouldn't be a surprise – in INDEPENDENCE DAY, Emmerich actually managed to make Jeff Goldblum boring, so what can we expect when he works with the dire Strait? My guess is he cast the actor for his pretty pecs; if that's enough for you, then never mind.