There was a time when director Roland Emmerich’s films represented Hollywood’s worst impulses, sacrificing plot for empty CGI spectacle. When it premiered in 2008, his 10,000 BC did nothing to silence those critics, with a dismal 8% on Rotten Tomatoes and its DVD quickly making its way to bargain bins across the globe. The past decade though has been surprisingly kind to the film, showing the simple joy of seeing an experienced action director delivering an original story.
None of that is to say that this film is some forgotten classic, as much of the criticism it faced regarding its thin script and acting remain accurate. The plot here could not be more bare-bones, following hunter-gather D’Leh (Steven Strait) as he pursues the pseudo-Egyptians who kidnapped his wife Evolet (Camilla Belle). The couple of attempts to provide any sort of depth or characterisation are so half-baked that they leave absolutely no impact. Flat performances by pretty much everyone, especially Belle, do not help matters.
No, the script is still a stinker, but what does work is director Emmerich’s ability to stage grand visuals and exciting action. Over the past decade, we’ve become inundated with fast editing and shaky cam to hide the fact that much of the fighting we see it is either barely or poorly staged. On top of that, films pack as many of these sequences as they can into each film, hoping that more action means more profits.
In these regards, 10,000 BC can serve as a kind of refreshing counter-programming. While it has only three action scenes, each one is clearly choreographed and shot so that audiences can follow what is happening. Watching action with such simplicity is actually jarring after a decade of sensory overload, but also exciting in its own way. I was shocked by just how much more invested I felt in what was going on when I could actually know where each character was and what they were doing. Emmerich also makes sure that each action sequence takes advantage of the uniqueness of the setting, including a mastodon hunt and a chase from prehistoric birds.
Unsurprisingly, the King of Disaster Cinema also brings a flair for the majestic that frequently impresses. Much of that comes during the second half, as we begin to see more of the technological marvels the kidnappers have accomplished. Aerial shots of boats and pyramids pair with soaring music to convey actual wonder, even with decade-old special effects. I found myself rewinding scenes a couple of times just to take it in, if only because I cannot remember the last time a blockbuster took the time to marvel at its own creations in this way. The helicarrier from The Avengers may have been the most recent example, although that felt less earned or necessary than the examples here.
Also worth note is the finale, which combines both the majesty and classic action into a slave rebellion at the base of the pyramids. Finally given a setting that is more than just landscape, Emmerich shines here with arresting visuals and some genuinely thrilling moments. We’ve seen plenty of similar rebellions on celluloid before but using modern CGI and an unexplained god-king keep things visually arresting and weird enough that you can’t look away.
If much of this sounds like a rant against the current trends in Hollywood blockbusters, that is because they do truly make a rough film like 10,000 BC much more interesting than it has any right to be given its problems. At this point, any epic action film that is not part of an existing franchise seems like a breath of fresh air, and the originality of this film’s (very thin) story goes a long way towards helping making it enjoyable. Add in the decent action scenes and unique visuals courtesy of an experienced director, and 10,000 BC emerges as a fun enough two hours for anyone browsing Netflix. One only hopes that the next decade does not make this film look even better.