Don’t Know Much about Prehistory


The new film Out of Darkness starts promisingly, with a title card that tells us it's set 45,000 years ago. It opens with a long shot of a campfire, a dot in a vast expanse of night. Then voices talking in a foreign language about stories, about how they have preserved our memories, and our ancestors, etc. and I'm thinking what? This is happening 45,000 years ago? The most we had back then is cave drawings and these people are discussing—discussing!—legacy?

We start to see them then, lit faintly by the campfire. Thick shadows shift for the closeups. The actors are… beautiful. Uniformly beautiful. Modern day uniformly beautiful. This is like a casting call for multiracial models, all high cheekbones and trendy stubble. Lenny Kravitz is more primitive.

Day breaks and the troupe decamps and sets off across vast rolling plains (actually the Scottish Highlands). They have names like Adem and Ave (get it?) and Odal and Geirr and Heron. They are dressed in furs and wear pants—pants!—and rawhide hoodies while trudging across the empty terrain where nothing can come up on you without you seeing it first. And…nothing does. Eventually, they come upon the bloody remains of a mastodon, an eerie charnel house of guts and bones.

Then the child Heron (Luna Mwezi) gets snatched and the hunt is on to find him. One of the women, a "stray" named Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green) is alarmed to find she's bleeding through her buckskins. And now the team leader Adem (Chuku Modu) and Elder Odal (Arno Luning) fear the scent of her menstrual blood is conjuring up a supernatural threat.

Director Andrew Cumming is known for short films and some TV work. Here he relies heavily on jump scares and the predictability of characters being picked off one by one on a schedule you can set your watch to. The actors, including Kit Young as Geirr and Iola Evans as Ave, give it their all, but have little to do besides stalk around and yell.

What they yell, the press notes tell us, is a "bespoke" language called "Tola," developed by linguist Daniel Anderson and archaeologist Rob Dinnis. Mr. Cumming's script (with cowriter Ruth Greenberg) touches incongruously upon contemporary topics like social pecking order, sexual fidelity (remember, these are cave people) and similar load-bearing bullshit. Is this even historically accurate? Don't know much about history, but did people 45,000 years ago really have this level of discourse or consciousness?

Throughout, the filmmakers make a concerted effort to obscure the action. Broad daylight isn't ominous, especially on terrain where you can see something coming on you miles away, and violence happens in pitch black night or fog as thick as cotton candy. Suspense requires a payoff, and this comes too late and too little.

Jean-Jacques Arnaud's 1981 Quest for Fire sometimes comes to my mind. It's a stirring reimagining of Stone Age times, and used the most simian aspects of its actors to great advantage. Little dialogue, mostly grunting and pointing. Furs on their backs that looked like they'd just been stripped off a saber-tooth tiger. That film did so much with so little and resembles authenticity, because we don't really know, do we, what happened that long ago?

So, maybe unfairly, I had hopes for Out of Darkness. It's billed as a "survival horror film" about primitive homo sapiens who face sinister forces. I wanted authenticity I guess, and figured filmmaking forty-three years after Quest for Fire would be advanced enough to give it to me.

More and more, given the ease of filmmaking and the volume of "content" available, I ask myself why a film was made at all. Does it serve some passion or viewpoint? Does it even take delight in making the most of a low budget? I don't see any of that in Out of Darkness. It's made-up language (which might as well be Klingon. Has anyone checked to see if word forms are consistent? I won't. Life's too short), its half-hearted scares, its rummage sale costumes… what was the point of even setting it in the past? Mostly it's just people walking across open fields carrying homemade spears.

Out of Darkness wants to join the ranks of Quest for Fire and Nicolas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising, and even Hulu's Native American take on the Predator series, Prey. It claims as its pedigree the producers of It Follows and Saint Maude. But director Andrew Cumming doesn't display a vision equal to those films. Shooting in the Scottish Highlands offers great emptiness, the challenge being to fill it with something of substance.

Out of Darkness. Directed by Andrew Cumming. From Bleecker Street and Stage 6 Films. 2022. 87 minutes. In theaters.

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