The James Clayton Column: prehistory according to Hollywood

Is Jack Black a modern day prophet, wonders James?

Like a great clumsy mammoth stumbling upon an already disordered source of debate, Harold Ramis comedy Year One comes cinematically crashing into cinemas offering a slightly alternative understanding of some pretty big issues. Stomping its furry feet on the questions that have divided science and religion and raged across the school curriculum of the globe, the Jack Black and Michael Cera-starring Biblical spoof sets forth a comic interpretation of the early days of prehistory.

Indeed, how did we get here? How was the Universe created? Are we the result of a deity’s imagination and endeavour or did we coincidentally come together from ash and particles of a prehistoric spontaneous explosion in the void? Is there really even a God at all?

We’ve not even begun to consider the questions offered by the presence of dinosaurs, theories of intelligent design or the studies of Charles Darwin, yet and my head hurts. It’s understandable, therefore, why questions of the Earth’s creation aren’t often found in the movie theatre – even more understandable if your belief is that the Earth came to be when Mother Nature was raped by the great cosmic snake and consequently laid the egg of existence. Metaphysical sexual molestation doesn’t often make it into family-friendly features…

Even seeking to avoid the controversies of our origin, the ultra-ancient reaches of prehistory don’t really present an exciting base upon which to build blockbuster success. Our earliest ancestors were generally an uncultured bunch solely concerned with surviving in a barren landscape of hardship, looking to gradually usher the species on. Cavemen and cavewomen aren’t often regarded as the most compelling characters upon which to craft a gripping narrative, and prehistory presents few opportunities for the car chases and musical numbers that mainstream audiences love.

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Film takes on these epochs thus usually operate anachronistically and Hollywoodify prehistory as seen in the case of such numerically-titled flicks as One Million Years B.C. and Roland Emmerich’s 10,000 B.C. You’re not going to find accurate truth here. Even some of the most outlandish claims made by Creationists that fly in the face of all evidence are more credible than the past as presented in these movies. In all probability, an average episode of The Flintstones is more factually accurate than any cinematic fantasies of cavemen spearing the pteranodon that seeks to gore Raquel Welch. Until school is “dumbed down” so much that Hannah-Barbera cartoons replace history textbooks, One Million Years B.C. should be taken as a spectacular silent showcase for Ray Harryhausen monsters and not as a documentary.

The same would be true for the creative chronicling of ancient history as presented by Year One, both for regular school and Sunday school. As a film which is set both in Judeo-Christian tradition and the prehistoric past, it has a toe on both sides of the divide and is open to criticism from all ends – and that’s even before any vicious film critics have stuck their sabre teeth in. In view of all this potential opposition, you’d be inclined to assume that Year One is doomed to the same fate as the dinosaurs.

Hollywood has always played loose with history, so the spuriousness of Year One‘s storyline is nothing notable. Looking to the movie’s theological thoughts then, it’s reasonable to suggest that Year One doesn’t seek to impose itself as a radical rereading of the Old Testament but rather as a ridiculous religious comedy in the vein of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian.

The movie sees two simple, bumbling souls named Zed and Oh – Black and Cera, respectively – adventuring off and attempting to save the girls they covet from slavery after being banished from their tribe. On the way they come across some big names from the Book of Genesis including Adam, Abraham and Isaac, though the emphasis is more on toilet humour than the high pronouncements of spiritual prophets. The key issue that Year One seeks to address is: “circumcision: why? How?” It’s a worthy question, and makes a change from quibbling about Adam’s ribs and the practicalities of Noah’s Ark.

Nevertheless, despite such puerility, I’d say that in a way Jack Black is something of a modern day prophet. Those who would sooner dismiss JB as more of a dumb man-child are directed to the educational guidance he provided in School Of Rock. He also made good as a holy man when he played the Mexican monk-cum-wrestler Brother Ignacio in spiritually uplifting comedy Nacho Libre. Furthermore, for years he’s been charismatically spreading the power of rock ‘n’ roll as one half of Tenacious D, defeating the Devil in a rock off and reclaiming the eponymous sacred artefact of The Pick Of Destiny movie.

Quite frankly, with that track record, I’m more inclined to accept the knowledge passed on by the Book of Jables than take the word as set forth by, say, Charlton Heston’s Moses. I personally prefer Black to the revered star of The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, and the truth is that Chuck championed the National Rifle Association and never had a rawkin’ band. Whereas JB tells me repeatedly and enthusiastically to “stick it to the man” and “embrace the power of rock”, Heston as prophet would have me reject the shiny lure of Yul Brynner’s bald head and take up firearms to show faith. My choice is made – I totally believe the Truth according to Jack Black and accept the account of Year One as the most likely and accurate depiction of the Earth’s early development.

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Yet, there’s still the problem of the dinosaurs, and until Steven Spielberg offers a Creationist-friendly redux version of Jurassic Park, the reptilian beasts won’t retreat quietly from the debating table. Couldn’t the makers of Year One have crammed a stray stegosaurus into the movie, setting up a Jables vs. Killer Dinosaur showdown? Just when we thought we had prehistory sussed, into sight comes the July release of the third Ice Age film, subtitled Dawn Of The Dinosaurs. But didn’t the Ice Age follow their extinction? How many Ice Ages do you want? Where are God, Adam and Eve in all of this? It’s all too contentious and confusing and Hollywood just isn’t making it any clearer. Stick with the school syllabus kids, and avoid suspicious, strange cosmic snakes…

James’ previous column can be found here.