I feel sorry for Roland Emmerich. No, really, I do. By all rights, he should be a notorious figure if ever there was one, but beyond a vague sense we all share that his movies all pretty much suck, he has no real name recognition. It's not like the phrase "There's a new Roland Emmerich movie coming out" has ever been accompanied by the rumbling of thunder and the screams of babies. There's just no space for him, I think: Uwe Boll has the "Crazy German Who Can't Make a Good Film" title sewn up in perpetuity, and as a Hollywood director, Emmerich is really just a poor man's Michael Bay - if we're talking about famously awful effects-driven popcorn movies, there's no question who jumps to mind first. That's not fair, if we consider that Bay's very worst film, Pearl Harbor, came out just a year after Emmerich's worst film, The Patriot, and as bad as the former no doubt is, I defy anyone to defend the latter as the superior work. But I'll bet you completely forgot The Patriot ever existed; after all this time, Emmerich's only films of note are Independence Day and possibly Godzilla. Not enough to keep him in the company of the truly bad, apparently.

The director is doing no good at all to his legacy with the new 10,000 BC, which just might be his best film in a decade and a half (I have strong guilty-pleasure affection for the 14-year-old Stargate), granting a nice, relative sense of the word "best". It's just barely good enough to fulfill the needs of an audience starved for any sort of effects-driven film that hardly sticks in the brain for more than a few minutes after it's over, and bad enough that you can feel your brain cells dying as you're watching, but not so bad that they're screaming in pain. It is profoundly adequate, for the lowest level at which the Adequate Bar can be set.

Like everyone else, I'd been assuming the film would be a more idiotic modern version of One Million Years B.C. but in the end it's actually a comfortingly straightforward riff on the Orpheus myth with some tarted-up sci-fi/fantasy dress: about 12,018 or 12,023 years ago, there was a tribe of hunters in mountains that simply cannot be identified, but so as to keep ourselves from going totally fucking mad, let us say they it is the Caucasus. This tribe, the Yagahl, has a mystical old crone who foresees that a blue-eyed child will be the harbinger of a new way of life for their people, and that the hero who wins her hand will blah blah leader. That blue-eyed child arrives, bringing tales of the four-legged demons who burned her village, and the leader of the Yagahl leaves in secret to find and stop these demons.

About 10 or 15 years later, the leader's son D'Leh, variously pronounced "Di-lay," "Di-leh," or "Du-lah" (played in any case by newcomer Steven Strait) has fallen in love with the blue-eyed woman, Evolet (Camilla Belle, a relative newcomer whom longtime readers will recall was the epochally awful lead of the 2006 When a Stranger Calls), but to earn her hand, he must win the annual mammoth hunt. The mammoths are given some cod-mesolithic name that I didn't write down. Anyway, he succeeds but in a way that makes him doubt his skills, and when the four-legged demons show up - surprise, they're armored horsemen! - he is powerless to stop them from stealing half the tribe, including Evolet. Roused to anger, and this is where it gets Orphic, he prepares to follow the horsemen into the unknown world below the mountains, where death and monsters dwell. He travels with the old leader Tic'Tic (played by veteran Maori actor Cliff Curtis - the only significant role filled by a Maori actor in this New Zealand-filmed project) to the lowland jungles where South American birds dwell, to the sandy desert where a black tribe defends against North American saber-toothed cats, and eventually ends up following proto-Phonecians to plateau where the first attempt at building the great pyramids is well underway, some 7300 years before the second, more successful attempt (not being sabotaged by angry Caucasian warriors).

It's easy to write all that out neat and pretty and laugh at it, but you know what? Movies get prehistory wrong, that's one of the things that make them movies. I can be okay with saber-tooth cats in North Middle East Africa as such. The important question is not, Is 10,000 BC unfathomably dumb - for of course, it is and was always going to be - but, Is 10,000 BC dumb in a way that's still at least somewhat fun? Ah, now that's a bit trickier to say.

I think the best way to start answering that question is by contending that the CGI effects in this film, and surely we can all agree that CGI effects are sort of the only reason to go, are bad. Not nearly so bad as they looked in the trailer, mind you, but the cat in particular looks pretty much like a cartoon animal. Far worse is the compositing: probably not something that the average moviegoer really thinks about until it goes tragically wrong, and wouldja look at that! We've got a film where it went tragically wrong right here! Nothing mortifying, I should say, but definitely some very shoddy moments such as during the early mammoth hunt, where a couple different hunters step right through the ropes holding the mammoth. Or during the climactic mammoth stampede, where competing CGI effects run through each other.

So I'm trying to say the visual effects are lousy, basically. Strike one against the film as dumb fun.

As for the narrative...you know, it's not horrible. It's basically Apocalypto as made by less talented people who aren't so eager to flaunt their racism. It's deeply unimaginative, and it's significantly episodic. The Heroic Journey is the one and only genre in which episodes can possibly work, so I'm not going to make too big a deal about it in this case.

The characters and dialogue, however, are atrocious: all that "noble savages speaking in clipped tones about Things So Important You Can Hear the Capital Letters" claptrap we've all come to know from years and years of fantasy movies about more-or-less primitive people fighting the evil cosmopolitans. It doesn't help that the two leads are decidedly white, and are using what seem for all the world to be Semitic accents. Strike two.

But that's actually all I've got: it looks terrible and the characters are poorly written and acted. The plot is boring but functional, and the setpieces are sufficiently rousing. No more than sufficient, but still, it's better than 300. So I suppose I'm trying to say that it's no good, but it's better than bad. At least it's not so bad that it suffocates us with its badness. Poor Roland Emmerich. Always a bridesmaid.