10,000 BC

by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer

Who doesn't like historical epics? Costume dramas that give you an up-close-and-personal look at some musty but meaningful period when life was tough, but big things were happening?

Well, give director Roland Emmerich credit for attempting a new record in rewinding the clock. He's dared to take us back to the last ice age, to follow the story of a small band of our fur-fitted forebears as they mix it up with a non-stop parade of bad guys. Indeed, the world these heroes occupy seems so riddled with malevolence, you can understand the incentive somebody might have to flood the place, and wash away the general pestilence.

"10,000 BC" is one of those ever-popular, journey-to-manhood flicks. In this case an even-tempered stud named D'leh (Steven Strait) - the only guy in town with clean hair - tries to overcome a bad rap: his long-gone Dad is accused of cowardice. That's got to make it tough during recess, but D'leh shows the schoolyard bullies that he's got what it takes by single-handedly bagging a wooly mammoth. This shaggy Pliocene protein seems to be the principal menu item for D'leh's tribe - which is odd, given that they live above the snow line in a range of mountains that's more forbidding than the Old Testament. What are mammoth herds doing up there, anyway? Even goats would have a tough time finding enough to eat.

Nevermind. D'leh brings home the proboscidean bacon, and everything is looking good - or at least as good as things can look in a society where you probably die at a younger age than your pets - until some prophesied, four-legged demons, a euphemism for hooligans on horseback, ride into town, ransack the hovels (is there a reason to bother?), and then ride back out with our hero's blue-eyed girlfriend in tow. This ticks D'leh off, and shifts the movie into high gear.

What follows is an epic quest for revenge, and the retrieval of Ms Blue-Eyes - sort of like Virgil's Aeneid, but without the poetry. D'leh and his buddies pass from mountains to jungles to sandy deserts as easily as you go from Tomorrowland to Frontierland by turning a Disneyland corner. They pick up a few allies, confront a few nasty critters (saber-toothed tigers and - get this - carnivorous ostriches), and keep everyone facing the screen wondering what misery will engulf these guys next.

Anachronisms are thicker than a hippo's neck here, but it's all good (if improbable) fun that eventually brings our heroes to the nexus of evil - a large-scale construction project on the relentlessly sandy banks of some river. Well, not really "some" river, because what the local residents are building - a couple of giant pyramids, a row of smaller ones, a big ceremonial barque, and a sphinx - I mean, do I have to spell it out for you?

Archaeologists with both expertise and tenure tell us that the great pyramids of Giza were constructed around 2,500 BC. However, a few marginal authors and late-night radio pundits claim they go back about 12,000 years. The chances that this is true are about the same as the odds that a wormhole will open up in your bedroom tonight, and whisk you off to the Large Magellanic Cloud for breakfast with aliens. But in "10,000 BC," you'll be able to see this hypothesis writ large on the special effects canvas. This sequence alone is so oddly imposing, it's worth the price of admission.

Oh, and there's something else to be gleaned from watching this ice-age epic. For those who still wonder how ancient peoples could pile up a million squared-off rocks to make Giza's famous pointy architecture, Emmerich supplies the answer: domesticated wooly mammoths! That's right; these tusky terrors may be only sandwich fixings for D'leh, but whoever is building these pyramids has figured out how to use them to cut the overhead on public works projects. Defanged and tamed, they slog up and down steep ramps, hauling blocks of limestone behind. One assumes that the ramps would soon be adequately, if unappealingly, greased.

Well, OK. It's not really the history of the world, but 10,000 BC has eye candy and action. And now, when someone asks "did extraterrestrials build the pyramids?" I can disabuse them of that nutty idea: "Don't be silly. They were built by a bunch of non-union, wooly mammoths." Works for me.