Caveman. United Artists 1981.

Before watching the movie:

The summary on this that I saw first was pretty scant. Ringo Starr is a loser caveman, he wants to get the girl. I dug deeper and there wasn’t much more short of a blow by blow synopsis. There’s something about an adventure and exile, but it seems to just be “let’s put Ringo Starr in a silly costume and have some fun with how stupid cave people were.”

In One Zillion BC, Atouk is possibly the least respected caveman in the tribe led by the large bully Tonda. Atouk’s friend Lar is injured in a dinosaur fight, but even though Atouk tries to help Lar hobble back to the cave, Tonda’s gang reject him. Atouk is obsessed with Lana, the hottest woman in the cave, who is of course Tonda’s mate. Atouk is the kind of caveman the bigger cavemen force to try new berries, and the latest discovery makes Atouk very high for a few seconds before passing out. Atouk tries to use these berries to engineer an opportunity where Tonda is out of the way for him to have his opportunity with Lana, but even though it doesn’t go as planned, when the three of them wake up in the morning, Tonda banishes Atouk. Atouk reunites with Lar and soon meets Tala and her blind father Gog, and Atouk and Lar save Gog from a tar pit. Tala immediately offers to be Atouk’s mate, but Atouk still wants Lana. The gang meet and help other outcasts and weaklings, and Atouk and his new tribe of rejects stumble their way into inventing fire, cooking, music, and the advantages of walking upright, and get large enough to find themselves clashing with Tonda’s tribe again and again.

I’m kind of surprised to see this story turn out to be such a strong parable about collaboration and ingenuity triumphing over brute force. One of my wonks is when people say we should be more like nature or more like early humans and be more individualistic when the very act of forming social groups is an important part of our ecological niche, and we could never have achieved anything like the society we have today without collaboration and a degree of mutual support. Though nobody would accuse this movie of being archaeologically accurate, it seems to present Tonda’s bullying hierarchy as the natural order that Atouk and his exiles overcome by modernizing, but I don’t know if a Tonda-ist tribe could have developed without more supportive bands inventing the concept of being a tribe.

The dinosaurs in this movie are stop-motion, but surprisingly good. The visual style is of course less than realistic, but the compositing is perfect and I wouldn’t have any trouble going with the design of these dinosaurs if it was an entirely stop-motion animated movie. Occasionally the humans have to physically interact with the dinosaurs, and the human puppets are much less believable for the most part, though when Atouk rides a dinosaur in the climax there were shots that I couldn’t tell where Ringo Starr ended and the puppet began.

This movie is also a bit more challenging than expected because there are it’s entirely in a made up caveman language the audience is left to learn from context. This movie is actually a bit multilingual, because some of the people who join Atouk’s new tribe speak different languages and they have to learn from each other, including one guy who just speaks perfect English, is just there for the joke of speaking perfect English. The subtitles I had access to (though I suspect they were at least based on a machine transcription) were less helpful than just watching, because most of the paleolanguage dialogue was rendered as things like “babbling”, and in a few places the made up words were rendered as completely incorrect English words.

This is a weird little movie that defies expectations in both directions. It was probably a pretty major release in its time but now it seems to be treated as so much of a back catalog selection that I thought it was over ten years older than it is, even if that makes no sense for where the Beatles were in the late 60s. I was expecting more sketches and less plot, and while there are plenty of sketches and the structure is a bit episodic, the throughline is a lot stronger than I expected, and it actually has something of a timeless message, even if a lot of the trappings are dated. I could watch it again and maybe enjoy it more because of better managed expectations, but it did seem to drag a bit in places. Overall it was a pleasant surprise.


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