At some point this was bound to happen, but it's still pretty surprising: Roland Emmerich, director of "Independence Day," "Stargate" and "The Day After Tommorrow," has made a movie that takes itself too seriously for it's own good. Let that sink in for a minute or two.
The peculiar adventure subgenre which you'd kinda have to call "Anthropological Fiction" if "Caveman Movie" wasn't so much quicker and more appropriate is, on it's face, almost always ridiculous to some degree: Actors in some version of what a design team thinks (after consulting a few speculative textbooks) that pre-historic humans might've dressed like if they too had to meet PG-13 standards of acceptibility hop around in deserts and jungles, beating their chests and throwing prop spears at empty space later to be filled by an SFX monster; all of it generally going on with a profound are of dramatic portent... make-believe reverence designed to make the audience feel like they're watching Nova.
The genre covers a wide stretch: Way over on one end of the spectrum you've got the infamous "One Million Years B.C." and "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth" - essentially sleazy paperback bodice-rippers crossbred with The Flintstones - and waaaaay over on the other you've got studiously-realistic offerings like "Quest For Fire." In between, there's room enough for everything from ludicrous feminist mythmaking ("Clan of The Cave Bear") to sword-and-sorcery ("Ironmaster") and even a surprising number of wholly-intentional comedies ("Caveman," "When Women Had Tails.") The dissapointing flaw in Emmerich's new entry is that he's got a movie who's story and setpieces are CRYING OUT for insanity of "One Million Years" but acts so dour you'd think it was aiming for "Quest."
The story, such as it is, is fairly similar to "Apocalypto"... save that Mel Gibson isn't directing so you don't have to worry about the bad guys just opting to stop fighting because a Priest shows up out of nowhere and saves the day by holding up a freakin' crucifix (no, really.) A peaceful tribe of innexplicably tan-skinned (despite living in snowy mountains) Mastodon hunters are victimized by an evil raiding-party's reenactment of the opening scene from "Conan the Barbarian," who haul half the population off for slave duty. They also snatch up the tribe's prettiest young woman (Camilla Bell) which is reason enough for the tribe's resident unwitting hero to tear himself away from inventing Daddy Issues to assemble a rescue posse and head out for... well, it's kinda unclear. From the way the geography keeps changing, it looks as though the villians and heroes follow eachother from the Himalayas, down into the Amazon, onto the Serengetti and finally the Serengetti.
The problems come in the second act. This is where all the wacky "holy crap, what's THAT THING?" monster/freaky-tribe stuff is supposed to happen, but instead it's mostly lots of walking and character work. We get a fun sequence with some huge killer ostriches (I forget what they're supposed to be called) and some Aesop's Fables business with a sabre-toothed tiger, but it's basically a walking-tour of different tribal costumes. None of it's BAD, just sort of meandering for a movie that very specifically wants to re-create "300's" success from this weekend last year.
It picks up in Act 3 when the movie remembers it's job is to make History Professors pull their hair out and we get to the big setpiece: Pyramids (possibly THE pyramids) being built several centuries too early using enslaved cavemen and domesticated mastodons. Emmerich does this sort of nonsense better than just about anyone, and the stuff going on here largely redeems the rest of the movie. We never get an especially-clear read on who the bad guys building up a civilization for the Egyptians to come squat in down the road are supposed to be, though the onscreen evidence seems to lean toward the old Atlantean or Lemuria lost-civilization-castoffs theory. For a moment, it looks to be building up to a reveal that'd make the whole film INSTANTLY more awesome... but it doesn't go for it. Pity.
FINAL RATING: 6/10