This is a honest and quite watchable French film - it is however nowhere near the quality of "Quest for fire", which the director tried to largely imitate... Some limited SPOILERS ahead.
It is the story of Ao, a Neanderthal man living 30 000 years ago, whose clan was destroyed and who tries to go back to the land of his ancestors, where he hopes find other people of his kind (by the way, the original title is "Ao, the last Neanderthal"). On his way he meets a young and very pregnant Homo sapiens woman, Aki, whose tribe also perished. Hard times making for strange travelling buddies, they will join forces, although for quite a long time without much enthusiasm... Their situation is complicated by the chase given to them by Hyena-Men, a small but very agressive band of Cro-Magnon Homo sapiens, the same who exterminated Aki's tribe.
The film has some really strong points:
- the images. Filmed mostly in national parks in Ukraine and Bulgaria, this movie offers us a very good show of wild nature, both in summer and winter, on plains, marshes, rugged hills and wild mountains; caves are very spectacular as is the recently burned out forest, with just the first traces of green re-appearing in the middle of desolation; genuine wild animals pictures (bisons, wild horses, wolves, eagles) were also skillfully integrated in the film.
- actors. British actors Simon Paul Sutton (Ao) and Aruna Shields (Aki) did very well. Aruna Shields paintings and other body decorations were very well made and they underline her considerable beauty (she also shows herself very generously to her public...).
- the story. I rather liked the story, even if the scenario is full of plot holes (see below). May be it is because I have myself little children, but for me this film became the most interesting after about 30 minutes, when Aki gave birth (in a very graphic scene) to a little girl. This prehistoric world was so dangerous that I feared greatly for the life of this little being all the time... The presence of this very young and very fragile new life is a very strong element of the film, as it gives to both main characters a new great motivation - and depth...
- music. It is rather discreet, but well chosen. Not as good as in "Quest for fire", but good.
- inclusion of last discoveries, like the importance of seafood in the diet of prehistoric tribes living near the sea or the fact that already 30 000 years ago people made musical instruments.
- rather comical Ao's attempts to "seduce" Aki (those scenes could have for title "How to get in her pants when she is not wearing any...")
But there are also some weaker points:
- political correctness. Neanderthals are shown as pacifists, who because of a religious taboo are simply unable to kill any other people - this is what supposedly explains their weakness when facing the Homo sapiens... Also, in this film women are shown as hunters and warriors on the equal foot with men - something which in authentic hunter-gatherer tribes is virtually never the case...
- plot holes. Ao and Aki supposedly travelled all the way from Northern Siberia to Southern Spain (around 6000 km in straight line, with mountains, great rivers and large marshes on their way), with a newborn baby... Well, gosh, OK - but then, how come with the time the baby still is not even crawling (in fact she should already be walking...)? Also, when a giant bear kills the best warrior of a very small tribe what is the sense of sending only two guys with spears to confront it on the open? 30 000 years ago people were no more suicidal than today and they knew well how to prepare traps and also surprise and kill bears in their lairs...
- "Quest for fire" imitation. In my modest opinion Jacques Malaterre should not have tried to imitate Jean-Jacques Annaud by inventing prehistoric languages and making prehistoric people very different in behavior from "modern" ones. 30 000 years ago people already were people and they would not eat carrion and lick one another like dogs... Also, when listening to languages of present day isolated hunters gatherers from Amazonia or old aboriginal shamans from Australia, it is clear that those very ancient preserved languages are already modern speech. All the grunting, chest thumping, one word repetition and whole speeches containing the great total of two words give a wrong picture of our ancestors from those relatively recent times. 30 000 years ago Neanderthals had already behind them about 270 000 years of history and therefore also language development - and for the Homo Sapiens the number was 170 000 years. That leaves a lot of time to develop real speech.
- graphic violence. Is it REALLY necessary to SHOW dead bodies of murdered babies?
- the annoying commentary. Main heroes "speak prehistoric" as in "Quest for fire" - but just in case the viewers are too stupid to understand, frequently there is a commentary explaining what is happening and what they are saying. It is useful in a couple of scenes, but completely unnecessary in most of them.
But bottom line I rather liked this film and I am quite happy that I watched it, even if I do not think that I will buy it. If you liked "Quest for fire" and "Clan of the cave bear" you will probably also enjoy, at least a little, "Ao the last hunter".