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Way out of the past

Times Staff Writer

As far as writer-director Roland Emmerich is concerned, the Ice Age is a state of mind. Refusing to be tied down by either sense or sensibility, his “10,000 BC” is as crazy as it wants to be, plundering the past and other movies with that peculiar Hollywood combination of the earnest and the preposterous that can result in the guiltiest of guilty pleasures.

Outrageous and outlandish, Emmerich’s “10,000 BC” is easy to mock, but it is so cheerfully shameless and terminally silly -- who knew that woolly mammoths were used to build the pyramids? -- that you have to admire its effrontery and accept its creator, the man behind “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” as a certified crackpot visionary.

Though perhaps initially inspired by the 1940 and 1967 versions of “One Million BC,” the first starring Victor Mature, the second, Raquel Welch, “10,000 BC” has gone beyond those films’ simple story of the humble Shell people and the hostile Rock people and into the wild blue yonder. As Emmerich’s co-writer, Harald Kloser, archly puts it, “Roland and I never intended for ’10,000 BC’ to be a documentary.”

What that means in practice is that “10,000 BC” envisions the icy environs of the late Pleistocene epoch as a place that people could simply walk out of if they had the requisite gumption and a heck of a good reason to hit the trail.

Our hero, the hunter D’Leh (Steven Strait), has both. But it’s the fate of his beloved Evolet (Camilla Belle, very far from costarring with Daniel Day-Lewis in the indie film “The Ballad of Jack and Rose”), kidnapped by a band of marauding slave traders known as “four-legged demons” because they come on horseback, that provides the clincher.

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So D’Leh, who’s never recovered from the youthful disappearance of his father, plus the great hunter and sage Tic’Tic (I’m not making up these names) and two others of the intrepid Yagahl tribe begin walking the walk. After the ice and snow give out, the Yagahl suddenly enter a sweltering jungle where they are attacked by what appears to be a flock of enormous and quite hostile chickens.

This Lost Valley for some reason contains an African tribe called the Naku, whose numbers have been similarly diminished by the slavers. Uniting with them and other local tribes, D’Leh and Tic’Tic (the Australian veteran Cliff Curtis) now have to cross an enormous desert. At the end of that is a proto-Egyptian civilization, in love with pyramids and run by an effete priestly class with long fingernails and a fondness for slavery and human sacrifice.

If those evil folk sound suspiciously like refugees from Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” that’s not the only movie “10,000 BC” plunders. There’s a sequence with a saber-toothed tiger inspired by the beloved “Androcles and the Lion” and an overall sensibility that echoes adventure films like the H. Rider Haggard-based “King Solomon’s Mines” and “She.”

More than anything, “10,000 BC” is an updated version of those old Saturday matinee action films and serials, filled with hair-breadth escapes, wild coincidences, things foretold by ancient prophecy and mysterious places such as the Mountain of the Gods, from which “no one has ever returned.” And that doesn’t even get into the legendary White Spear and the wise shaman called Old Mother who knows all about it.

Yes, the film has so much up-to-the-minute, cost-is-no-object computer-generated imagery that we can practically smell the fetid breath of the herds of woolly mammoths that are much given to fierce stampeding. But the film’s heart is in its throwback innocence, its determinedly old-fashioned story of a young love that will not die and a young man who is a hero in the making but doesn’t know it.

Almost alone in films intended for a young demographic, the PG-13 “10,000 BC” determinedly avoids profanity, excessive gore and profane humor. It even employs Omar Sharif to read a pious voice-over that relies on sentiments like “only time can teach us what is truth and what is legend.” The oracle has spoken.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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“10,000 BC.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. In general release.


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