Crash Course: Caveman Movies

After doing a number of these “Crash Course” articles about important filmmakers and relevant themes I thought it was high time to take a look at a handful of movies that were a bit lighter.  So, for no reason in particular, the time seems right to explore a handful of movies about people living their lives in pre-history: the time of the cave people.  I’m going to take a look at six movies from different eras and in vastly different styles and tones that deal in one way or another with our distant forefathers. Should make for some fun summer viewing at the very least.

One Million Years B.C. (1967)

While I’m calling these “caveMAN movies” a lot of them focus just as much on the cave ladies, cave ladies in varying degrees of undress.   This late sixties movie in particular seems to have largely been made for two reasons: 1. to show Raquel Welch in a deerskin fur bikini and 2. to give the audience some cool Ray Harryhausen stop-motion effects, but with a strong emphasis on the former.  In fact the movie may very well be more famous for a publicity still of Ms. Welch that became the basis for a very popular pinup poster which would eventually find its way to Andy Dufresne’s prison cell wall in The Shawshank Redemption.  I had kind of expected the movie to be the Flintstone’s to Barbarella’s Jetsons, but the actual movie isn’t really all that salacious outside of Welch’s costuming and is actually more of a family adventure film in a lot of ways.

The movie opens with an authoritative voice-over of the kind you’d expect from a Disney nature documentary, which is odd because as you can probably tell from the title, scientific accuracy is not much of a concern here.  Homo Sapiens as we know them didn’t exist much further back than 100,000 BCE and any human ancestors alive in 1,000,000 BCE would have been hairy and somewhat apelike.  One other thing you most certainly wouldn’t have seen in that year were freakin’ dinosaurs, but they’re all over this movie.  While most of these were created by stop-motion effects there were a couple created by taking real animals, specifically a tarantula and an iguana, and making them look giant through rear projection techniques and those look pretty bad both because there were never any giant spiders or iguanas and also because the effects are transparent.  The rest of the dinosaurs do look a lot better though, at least in that slightly cheesy way that Harryhausen’s effects were always charming.

The film’s highlight is a section where the film’s protagonist, a dude apparently named Tumak, fights off an attack by an Allosaurus with a spear.  I’m pretty sure I’ve seen clips of this scene before in a film documentary or something because it was definitely familiar.  There’s also a pretty cool scene of a Pteranodon that’s worth watching.  Interestingly, despite the film’s complete disinterest in evolutionary realism it does take the step of keeping its characters from speaking English.  Like in a lot of these movies it opts to go with visual storytelling over dialogue driven narrative, a decision that I’m not entirely sure the movie was equipped to back up but it does get by fairly well.  There isn’t really a whole lot to the story or the movie really. It’s a fairly average B-movie that’s been elevated slightly by some fun special effects and a hot chick, but at least it’s remembered for something.

*** out of Five


Quest For Fire (1981)

Cave people have been something of a archetypical character for ages, but you can probably count the number of films that deal with them seriously as historical figures rather than as camp figures on one hand.  One of those movies, and perhaps the most famous of them, is Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1981 French-American co-production Quest for Fire.  The film’s trailer opens with a narration that proclaims “Fourteen years ago, 2001: A Space Odyssey was the astounding epic that aroused a generation, telling them where they might be headed. Now, 20th Century Fox presents a science fantasy adventure that will arouse this generation, telling them where we might have begun.”  That gives you something of an idea of how seriously this movie took itself, it wanted to be the definitive caveman adventure and in some ways it was.  Rather than have the cast speak broken English they hired Anthony Burgess to invent a primitive language involving a variety of grunts for the characters to speak while a more advanced group they meet later uses the Cree language, all of this presented without subtitles, forcing the viewer to experience the movie as an exercise in visual storytelling.

The film’s basic story is fairly simple.  The central tribe does not fully understand how fire works and thinks they need to keep the flame going in order to keep using it.  When their flame is extinguished in an opening battle they need to go on a quest to find more fire and bring it back.  The film features Ron Perlman in his first role and along the way they meet a cave lady from another tribe played Rae Dawn Chong, who is essentially nude through the whole movie, which comes across as more tasteful than that sounds.  That said, caveman sex is one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the film because through much of the film the cavemen more or less feel entitled to rape the cave women in an animalistic fashion.  This behavior is not eroticized and it’s seen as a sign of progress when the sex becomes a bit more consensual later on, but it’s still kind of an uncomfortable metaphor and a romance of sorts that comes into the film late never really works.

The film also isn’t as authentic as it claims to be.  It reminded me a bit of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto in that it kind of conflates different eras of an area into a single adventure narrative.  The kind of apelike humans seen in the opening scene would been long gone before the kind of village dwelling tribe seen late in the film would have established itself and the odds of all three groups being in such close proximity with such vastly different levels of development is ulikely.  And simply as a piece of filmmaking this is a bit of a mixed bag.  The film incorporates a lot of good scenery but some of the special effect don’t look quite right.  Sabre tooth tigers are created by simply putting fake teeth in the mouths of real lions (would hate to have to be the guy who has to install those), which is a level of practical effects work that I should appreciate but which also means that humans don’t really interact with them during the action scenes.  Ultimately I just don’t think Annaud quite the chops to pull off the rather challenging trick he was trying to do with this movie and that 2001 comparison from the trailer is just really off-base, but I appreciate that the movie was trying to compete with that movie during an era when everyone was trying to make the next Star Wars.

***1/2 out of Five


Clan of the Cave Bear (1986)

Clan of the Cave Bear was made about five years after Quest for Fire and the two movies are generally linked in the public’s collective memory and it’s not too hard to view the newer film as a Hollywood repackaging of the earlier film.  However, Clan of the Cave Bear is actually an adaptation of a novel by Jean M. Auel which was the first in the popular “Earth’s Children” series.  By all accounts the film isn’t a very faithful adaptation, in fact most of the reviews of the film on IMDB seem to be written by fans of the book who are pissed about the movie, but that’s not really much of a concern for my purposes.  It was directed by Michael Chapman, who spent most of his career as a fairly accomplished cinematographer and worked with Martin Scorsese on some of his most famous works including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull before trying to launch a directorial career.  His first film was the early Tom Cruise vehicle All the Right Moves and this was his follow-up and it seems to have kind of ruined his career because he went right back to being a DP afterward.  The movie was in fact pretty widely disliked upon its release and more or less flopped at the box office, but there are certainly people who remember it with some fondness and watching it now it definitely seems flawed but it hardly seems like some sort of all time turkey.

The film is set about 20,000 before the Common Era and has a particular interest in the interactions between Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals.  In fact the film is about a Cro-magnon woman who becomes separated from her tribe as a little girl and is picked up and raised by a band of Neanderthals.  While in that pack she feels at home but not at home.  The Neanderthals think she’s something of an ugly duckling and that she’ll never find a mate (even though, to modern eyes, she’s the only hottie on screen) and she occasionally proves to be more adept at using tools and the like.  Like Quest for Fire the film has its characters talking in a grunty invented language but unlike Quest for Fire subtitles are included and there’s also an omniscient narrator who explains perhaps a bit more of the plot than she should.  Honestly I’m kind of impressed they didn’t just have the characters speaking broken English given that this was trying to be more of a mainstream Hollywood product, but this is part of why the film never quite connected with audiences; not being in English was too weird for the mainstream but not going all the way with the experimentation wasn’t impressive to the cineaste types and that same inability to please both audiences kind of runs through the movie.

Based on the film’s poster of Daryl Hannah in meticulously applied ritualistic makeup I think I was expecting something a bit more outlandish than the actual movie, which is surprisingly respectable.  In fact the film seems to be applying something of a feminist message to this pre-historic setting given that the third act addresses a taboo within the tribe about women so much as touching hunting weapons, which our main character breaks and then becomes the tribes first female hunter as a result.  Where the movie starts to go wrong is in the presentation.  The film’s narration is something of a problem as it really over-explains things and I’m not sure Daryl Hannah works that well in the lead as she just looks like a very modern blonde movie star and never really uglies herself up enough to really feel like a cave person.  Beyond that I just kind of wish there was either a little more story here or a lot less.  It’s not minimalist enough to feel like an experimental peak into the past but also doesn’t quite have the kind of strong narrative that can work as more conventional cinema.  I think the movie’s biggest problem really is simply that it isn’t Quest for Fire.  That movie is plainly better on a number of levels and you can’t help but compare the two given that one was only made a few years after the other.

**1/2 out of Five


10,000 BC (2008)

After the box office failure of Clan of the Cave Bear Hollywood opted not to make any caveman related movies during the 90s or early 2000s aside from Encino Man and The Flintsones.  So it wouldn’t be until 2008 that we’d get another prehistoric epic and it would come from, of all people, Roland Emmerich.  Emmerich, the German born master of disaster who made a fortune during the 90s making bland spectacles like Independence Day, Godzilla (1998), and The Day After Tomorrow, seemed like an odd choice to helm a movie that seemingly couldn’t feature the destructions of major landmarks but at the point he did need to try to do something that was at least a little bit different.  The film he came up with is essentially a ripoff of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto or at least feels that way.  I’d be reasonably willing to believe that this was in production before that 2006 film came out but given that this is about a hero from a distant culture who’s in pursuit of an evil tribe that kidnaps people from the surrounding areas to bring captives back to a nearby city filled with pyramids and decadence it’s a little hard not to directly compare the two and that is not a comparison that 10,000 BC can live up to.  That movie was the harcore version of this story with bloody R-rated violence, real looking animals, and dialogue in the Maya language where this is more like an attempt to make that movie in more of a mainstream PG-13 way.

The first problem with the movie is that, well, the people in it don’t seem much like cavemen.  Granted this is set several thousand years later than Quest for Fire and Clan of the Cave Bear and is about people who are firmly homo-sapiens but there’s a certain Hollywood cleanliness to how all the actors look and act.  Emmerich did have the foresight to mostly cast the film with unknowns, which was probably a smart move, but these people seem like they’re unknown for a reason and it doesn’t surprise me that none of them have become famous in the wake of the film.  The film also doesn’t bother to try to construct an ancient cave-man language and have everyone (well, all the good guys) speak modern English, which seemed understandable at the time but seeing that all these other movies took that extra step it seems a bit lazy and pandering.  I will say that having modern special effects for the prehistoric animals helped a bit.  The mammoth hunt at the beginning is pretty good and the sabre toothed tiger in the film is also pretty good and as much as I tend to prefer practical effects to CGI I will say the digital creations here are a lot more useful then the fur coated elephants and dentally augmented mountain lions used in some of these other caveman movies.

For all the liberties the movie take early on it’s not until the film’s third act where things really go crazy.  In that section our band of adventurers discover that the people who kidnaped their kinfolk are in fact agents of a strange city-dwelling tribe who are developed to the point where they can forge metal, build sail ships, and are using mammoths to construct large pyramids.  I don’t think these people are supposed to be actual Egyptians mind you, but some other civilization lost to time and the movie is very unclear about what strange geographic location all of this is happening in.  This is a ridiculous anachronism of course, ridiculous to the point where a throwaway line where someone mentions that these people “maybe came from the sky” suggests that all of this is meant to be some sort of stealth prequel to Roland Emmerich’s Hollywood debut: Stargate.  Or if not that then some other sort of riff on the popular conspiracy theory that the Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens.  Either way it’s stupid.  Still despite all that, I will say that the 8% rating that this currently holds on Rotten Tomatoes does seem just a little bit harsh… then again maybe it’s doesn’t.  Put it this way, dumb as the movie is, it’s dumb in a slightly more earnest way than some of Emmerich’s other movies and there is a bit more creativity to it than in some other bad movies that Hollywood puts out.  Had this project just been given to a filmmaker with a bit more vision and a bit more willingness to either hold back or lean into its nuttiness you might have had something.

** out of Five


Alpha (2018)

When the movie Alpha was out last year I remember seeing some of the advertisements for it and not really knowing what to make of it.  It was plainly obvious that no one involved knew how to market it and it ended up basically coming and going from theaters without leaving much of a mark on the culture at all.  However, what little I did hear about it did have me at least a little curious.  The film is set about 20,000 years ago and focuses on a tribal family that lives somewhere in Europe and specifically on an adolescent named Keda played by Kodi Smit-McPhee who has just become old enough to go with his father and another group to participate in a hunt for some species of bison.  But the hunt goes wrong and Keda ends up going over a cliff and is left for dead, but he actually survived the fall and when he regains coniousness he’s alone and has to find his way home.  Along the way however, he ends up injuring a wolf and over the coursing of the journey this wolf ends up following him and essentially becomes the first domesticated dog over the course of the movie.

So essentially this is a PG-13 prehistoric version of The Revenant but with a canine instead of a revenge story.  That’s not exactly the biggest built in audience and the marketers tried to compensate for that by making the dog the sales hook.  Essentially they were trying to use the fact that there’s a wolf/dog here to sell the film to the kinds of people who would enjoy Marley and Me or A Dog’s Purpose but what they failed to factor in is that those movies are sappy as hell and that the people who would like them are generally idiots and that the movie that they were selling has a less mainstream sensibility.  Case in point, Alpha isn’t in English.  Like Quest for Fire before it it’s in an invented language, albeit one that is fully subtitled.  It also doesn’t soften too many of the hardships of surviving in this world, including a family dynamic which is not traditionally “loving.”  So trying to sell that to the Hallmark crowd was probably a mistake, but there are also reasons why it wouldn’t be fully accepted by the arthouse or action movie crowd either.  For one thing its conceit that this wolf can become domesticated over the course of this one journey and its implication that this idea spread across the world from this one tribe is extremely simplistic.  These things happened over the course of eons, not months.  And while the movie isn’t exactly laser focused on the family audience it is still essentially meant to be a young adult adventure rather than a serious work.

The film was directed by Albert Hughes who, along with his brother Allen Hughes, made up the Hughes Brothers.  The Hughes Brothers came out really strong with their 1993 debut Menace II Society was a classic of its era but they were never really able to follow it up with anything truly great.  They certainly had the chops for Hollywood productions but all their subsequent projects, while generally interesting, only felt like they were 75% of the way to living up to their potential.  They’re working solo now but I’d say Albert still has the same strengths and weaknesses that he had while working with his brother.  He brings to the film a pretty strong visual style and does some pretty strong work with what I suspect was a mid-sized budget and he manages to avoid some of the compromises that a lot of other productions might have fallen into. On the downside I don’t think he necessarily makes his main character into an overly likable or interesting protagonist and on some level.  He also tones down the strong violence that is present in most of his and his brothers’ films but he also doesn’t soften things quite as much as the producers trying to make this into a family film might have liked.  The critics did respond to the film and gave it a pretty high Rotten Tomatoes score but they certainly didn’t champion it, and in some ways I wish they had.  While this one wasn’t perfectly tailored to the taste of critics, it is exactly the kind of bolder mid-budget movies with commercial aims that they supposedly want more of and if it had been marketed a bit more wisely I think it could have become a very good alternative for families tired of Disney extravaganzas.

***1/2 out of Five

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