"Mommy! Get me out of this terrible movie!": Young Ayla screams for help in the opening scenes of "The Clan of the Cave Bear" (1986).
A long, long, long, long, long time ago, when the Earth was young, a cute little blond muffin was tramping around outdoors. Then a volcano erupted or an earthquake happened and the tot ran for the protection of her mom. Unfortunately, mom is swallowed up by a gap that suddenly opens in the ground. The poor kid staggers around until she's found by a group of wandering cave people, who reluctantly adopt her.
From the beginning, the cave dwellers know this kid is "different": they have protruding brows, buck teeth, bad mullets and can't count past the number three; she, on the other hand, is a blond with great hair, tweezed brows, shiny rows of teeth and a mean way with a sling-shot--and she can count to twenty; they are Neanderthals, while she is Cro-Magnon, one of the "others". She is Ayla, the protagonist/ protofeminist of "The Clan of the Cave Bear" (1986), a prehistoric head-scratcher starring Daryl Hannah and her many hair extensions.
Now, some might argue that Hannah, who rose to fame as a mermaid in "Splash" (1984), would be a natural choice for this type of role. They have a point. As an actress, Hannah's best work has been in quirky, off-beat parts: the ethereal astronomer in "Roxanne", the secretive shampoo girl in "Steele Magnolias" and the one-eyed, whistling assassin in "Kill Bill".
However, if Ayla is to believed not only as a character, but also as a threat to the Neanderthal way of life and as a harbinger of things to come, the flick needs a rock solid script that conveys this. And that's where "The Clan of the Cave Bear" falls flatter than a Trump message on the importance of environmental stewardship.
Instead of telling an original story, the plot trots out the same old tropes about outcasts we've all heard before, from "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" to "A Bug's Life" to "Happy Feet": Ayla doesn't conform to the Neanderthal ideal, so she's treated like an inferior, a position she accepts with a heavy heart. Even when she demonstrates her math skills to Creb (James Remar), the tribe's wise man and Ayla's adoptive father, he tells her not to let anyone else know. That's because Neanderthals firmly believe females exist to be submissive beasts of burden and obliging sex partners. If a male member of this tribe gets horny, his chosen female must meekly submit, even if she's not in the mood. And woe to any gal who dares touch or use hunting tools: the penalty for that is death.
It's easy to see why Ayla (Daryl Hannah, right) is the Plain Jane of her Neanderthal tribe.
In other words, these Neanderthals are, well, real Neanderthals.
Ayla tries her best to fit in, but it never quite works. Her adoptive mom Iza (Pamela Reed) is the clan's medicine woman. She trains Ayla to be her successor so she will have a "role" in the tribe. However, if Ayla is truly going to be safe, she needs a "Spirit Animal" and a mate to protect her. As the women of the tribe aren't allowed to hunt--cook, yes, but hunt, no-- without "someone to hunt for her", Ayla would starve. While Creb has no problem finding Ayla a spirit animal (he settles on a lion), he can do nothing about Hannah's matrimonial prospects, which are pretty dim. The local boys like their women short and stooped with a matted mullet of hair. Ayla, on the other hand, is tall, tawny and sports chic braids, thus dooming her to a life of spinsterhood.
"Ayla is so ugly," one old biddy confides to Iza.
Ain't it the truth.
While the other clan members eventually accept the poor dear, one fellow especially has it in for her: Broud (Thomas G. Waites), the mean, temperamental bully who is inexplicably set to become the clan's next leader. Unfortunately, his hostility is never satisfyingly explained. Is Broud threatened by Ayla's superior abilities? Is he worried Ayla might inspire the other women to start asserting themselves? Or is he miffed because he mounted Ayla and then failed to perform and the tribe saw the whole thing? And the women of the tribe joked and snickered behind his back?
Broud (Thomas G. Waites) is a Neanderthal in every sense of the word: mean, dumb, violent and hairy.
Eventually Broud gets his revenge on Ayla by assaulting her when she's out picking plants for Iza. A plucky gal, Ayla manages to put up a good fight before Broud over powers her. Still, no matter how bad her situation, our heroine manages to stay positive: when it becomes clear that Ayla is pregnant, she's thrilled, because Iza had previously said "her spirit marking" (scars from an earlier animal attack) made her "too strong" to conceive (in reality, Iza was just too kind-hearted to tell Ayla she was too ugly to find a mate and therefore would probably remain childless).
Later on, the clan of the cave bear decides to go on a picnic. Little do they realize a pack of wolves are skulking near-by. In a flash one of the critters grabs a toddler and runs off. While everybody else flail their arms and grunts in horror, quick thinking Ayla grabs her sling-shot and brains the beast. The tot is saved, but Ayla has broken the taboo against women touching or using weapons. It's announced that Ayla must go into exile for "one cycle of the moon" as punishment. Making her sentence all the harsher is the fact that she's preggers.
However, as the flick has shown us time and again, our Cro-Magnon heroine is nothing if not resilient. In short order, Ayla finds a cozy cave, hunts for food, gives birth to a son and survives a harsh winter. She returns to the clan none the worse for wear, although her single mom status does pose a problem. See, without a man to hunt for Ayla and the baby, the two are doomed--or so it seems. No doubt inspired by his daughter's pluck and grit, Creb the wise man decrees that Ayla can hunt for herself; she is now known within the tribe as "the Woman who Hunts." Although this is quite a move for such a conservative clan, nobody objects and people go about their business as before.
Years pass and Ayla seems content. Her son, Durc, is fully accepted by the clan. She can hunt to her heart's content. Her position as medicine woman is respected. What more could a Cro-Magnon living among Neanderthals want?
Then word gets out that all the heads of the neighboring clans are to meet for some type of caveman council. Because of her status as medicine woman, Ayla gets to come, too. It's not like Cinderella going to the ball, exactly, but it does signify Ayla's acceptance by her adopted clan. Should anyone get sick back home in her absence, well, tough luck.
Proud warrior Ayla practices her sling-shot skills in privacy.
It's while attending this conference that Ayla meets another Cro-Magon type guy. He's the first to ever find Ayla pretty and remarks that they have the same color of eyes. However, any prehistoric romance is nipped in the bud when the poor sap has his head ripped off in a bear baiting ceremony--don't you hate it when that happens? I mean, you finally meet a nice guy and then SNAP! off goes his head. "Gentle Ben" my ass...
Putting her heartbreak aside, Ayla participates in the wild kegger thrown on the conference's last night. With her face painted ghostly white accented by orange and black streaks, Ayla enjoys many cup-fulls of the spiked hooch served. While everybody else cavorts like a typical crowd at Coachella, Creb and Ayla have a mind meld. Ayla sees a bear, a lion and her son Durc all walking happily together in the fog. Then the lion goes in one direction and the bear and Durc go in another. Hmmm, what could that mean? Before Ayla can figure it out, she passes out--also typical Coachella behavior.
Back home at last, the clan of the cave bear has a change over leadership. Broud is finally made boss of the clan and Creb hands over his wise man duties to a fellow named Goov (Curtis Armstrong, best remembered for his turn as Herbert Viola on "Moonlighting"). Ever the meanie, Broud's first order of business is to kick Creb out of clan because he's old. Ayla jumps up and objects. She also beats Broud up for good measure. Suddenly, like a flash of light, Ayla understands the meaning of her vision at caveman Coachella: Ayla (the lion) must leave the clan and finally reunite with her true people, "the others", wherever they may be. Little Durc will become the leader of the cave bear clan when he gets older, as symbolized by him walking happily away with the bear. With mom Ayla's superior genes coursing through his body, Durc will be a good leader and perhaps even pass on her wisdom to his dumb, awkward, hairy subjects, but it seems like a losing battle, if you ask me.
So, with the sun slowly sinking, Ayla leaves the clan of the cave bear forever. With her beauty, brains and sling-shot, our heroine confidently strides into the great wide somewhere, knowing that, not too far off, Neil Young is waiting for her.
"Searching for a Heart of Gold"?: Ayla heads for the hills.
"The Clan of the Cave Bear" isn't as low rent and nutty as "The Wild Women of Wongo" (1958), "Teenage Caveman" (1958) or "Prehistoric Women" (1950). Nor is it as stupid as "10,000 BC" (2008) or "One Million BC"(1966), which proudly proclaimed, "Raquel Welch wears mankind's first bikini!" It lacks the urgency of "Quest for Fire" and the brilliance of the "Dawn of Man" scenes in "2001: A Space Odyssey".
Indeed, upon reflection, "The Clan of the Cave Bear" resembles nothing more a prehistoric Lifetime movie, except instead of a put-upon employee finally telling off her jerk boss, quitting her job and starting her own business, we have a put-upon Cro-Magnon finally telling off her jerk clan leader and heading off to find smarter people to hang out with.
While Daryl Hannah has the athletic prowess necessary for Ayla, she doesn't convey her character's superior smarts very well. In fact, Hannah spends most of the movie looking bewildered and lost. Even her realization that she must leave the clan and live among her own kind lacks emotional heft. If the flick's narrator hadn't told us what Ayla was thinking, the audience might have assumed she was just fed up and decided to take a walk to cool off.
The only actor in the cast who manages to convey any real personality and emotion is Pamela Reed, Aya's adoptive mom. But even she has her limits: the movie often forces her to stare wanly out into space and wear increasing amount of old lady make-up to show the passing of time.
Although I have never read the series of books "The Clan of the Cave Bear" is part of, I can still state with confidence that the character author Jean Aurel created had to be a lot smarter and forceful than the one depicted on screen. Life was pretty tough back in the early days and you needed more than just great hair to survive.
With clan members like this, it's easy to see why Ayla felt out of place.
Early in this review I called "The Clan of the Cave Bear" a "head scratcher." I stand by that. The movie is bad, to be sure, but it's not as bad as it could have been. It's badness isn't bad enough to earn it a place in the Junk Cinema Hall of Shame like "Teenage Caveman" or "The Wild Women of Wongo", but it's pleasantly bad in it's own minor way--and that's good enough for me.
Therefore movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, our differences can often be our strengths and SAVE THE MOVIES.
There were no dinosaurs in "The Clan of the Cave Bear". If there had been, it might have spiced things up.