9 Creative Cinematic Portrayals of Prehistoric Times

By  · Published on January 10th, 2013

by David Christopher Bell

The great thing about prehistory is that you can speculate pretty much any old hogwash about it. Sure – science has given us a reasonably educated guess, but when has science ever stopped us from making shit up? Who’s to say that dinosaurs didn’t talk, or that mankind wasn’t created by a super-species of cat-like beings? That would certainly explain their sense of entitlement.

The film industry knows what’s up, and has given us some great depictions of pre-life over the years. Some are unique in their beauty and/or accuracy, while others are just downright silly. Both are great, so let’s celebrate 9 creative ways to look at the world before we came to be.

9. Adorable Talking Dinosaurs in The Land Before Time


Maybe I’m uneducated – but with the exception of Gertie the Dinosaur, was there any kid-friendly dino cartoon that existed prior to The Land Before Time? This seems like it was the true OG of the sub-genre, and a bold one at that. After all it’s one thing to make a light-hearted buddy adventure starring a juvenile Apatosaurus, but this film actually tackles their eventual extinction.

The entire film is a reminder that while Littlefoot and Cera and Ducky and Petrie might prevail in their adventure, that victory is fleeting, and one day the Great Valley won’t be so great anymore. After all, we kind of know how this one will end. It’s a lot like watching a fly escape the stick of a trap knowing that its lifespan is only 24 hours anyway.

When you think about it, Littlefoot’s mother was really the lucky one of the bunch. At least she died from fighting and not of slow starvation. We should all be so lucky to go out fighting a T-Rex, right?

Jesus, remember the mother’s death? What a scarring film this is. They should rename it: “Everything you love is going to die”.

8. Martian Ancestry in Mission To Mars


Martians. It’s as good of a guess as anything else, really. Considering the big sentient space tornado at the opening of the film, by the end it’s actually not a huge stretch in the movie’s logic.

I like this film. Anything where Tim Robbins gets his head frozen is okay in my book. Not to mention Brian De Palma, the best director of films that no one watches. The man just doesn’t give a shit, which is awesome. He just got high and watched 2001, called his assistant and said, “Get me a space script.”

Fun fact: I have no idea how this movie actually got made, so don’t go telling people that Brian De Palma is a big uncaring stoner.

Seriously though – it really seems like lately De Palma makes movies with a degree of disinterest for the general public, which results in some unique films. It probably has to do with the fact that the guy made Scarface and is now untouchable. Oh and he made The Untouchables too. And Carrie. After all that cred, you’ve kind of earned the right to sit back and watch Rachel McAdams go at it with Noomi Rapace and call it “working.”

7. Bodybuilder Albino Aliens in Prometheus

No matter what your feelings might be concerning this film, you have to admit that crediting our origins to some milk-filled water balloon alien-man having a bad cup of soy sauce is a pretty bold move. It does seem fitting that our beginnings would spawn from the pain of others, however that doesn’t explain why we managed to look like them after thousands of years of evolution. Whatever, it’s fine.

Do you know what three faces they used to design the “Engineers” in this film? They wanted their form to stand out as being god-like, superior in nature. So for reference they went with the Statue Of Liberty, Michelangelo’s David, and Elvis Presley. Seems about right, but if they really wanted these things to stand out they should have used Elvis for the hair as well.

It all makes you wonder just what the females of the species looks like. I’m thinking Chyna, but whiter. Yikes.

6. Ridiculously Realistic Cave Dwellers in Quest For Fire


It’s one of those films that no one watches more than once, but has nothing bad to say about. Ron Perlman and that lady from Commando running around all half-naked looking for fire… the realism of the plot proves just how boring our ancestors really had it.

At the same time, it’s extremely engaging to watch – especially the moment when our main caveman Naoh sees, for the very first time, a young boy of a more advanced tribe make fire with his hands. At the sight of this, Naoh weeps very genuine tears. It’s downright touching to realize how something so simple to us means so much to this character.

And that’s what makes this film so creative: it’s just a really good depiction of an era in which we could never understand today. We see the primal fear in every day life, and the significant appeasement that fire offers. By the end, we want fire as badly as they do.

5. Ridiculously Unrealistic Cave Dwellers in One Million Years B.C.

On the flip side of that: giant turtles.

While it’s all well and good to attempt to make an accurate and respectful portrayal of humankind during prehistoric times, sometimes you just gotta stick a hot chick in a bikini. An early remake, the 1966 One Million Years B.C. makes no attempt to do anything but entertain. Even animator Ray Harryhausen owned up to this later on, saying that he did not make the film for “professors.” Well – not unless those professors really like boobs.

Watching the film, I don’t see why there would even need to be a clarification here. Even a child would see this and raise an eyebrow the moment a pet iguana shows up as a giant lizard. Of course, that doesn’t take anything away from the film – which is a freaking blast, and in terms of effects, seamless.

Playing a caveman on screen must be either really fun or really horrible to do. It’s the opposite of voice acting in that it’s almost exclusively physical, not to mention extremely silly. Also, so many opportunities to accidently moon the audience.

Read on!

4. The Dawn of Man in 2001: A Space Odyssey

This is by far the creepiest origin-of-man story out there. To be fair, it’s mostly because of the music; otherwise it’s really just a giant black Lego getting touched by monkeys. Still, it’s unsettling no matter how you slice it. Sentience sparked by a big ol’ alien wafer, indifferent to it’s own God-like power. Also, that zebra at the beginning is just a dead horse painted black and white. Seriously, that’s a thing that happened. Probably thanks to some poor PA making college credit.

When your movie’s time span ends in the distant future and begins at the dawn of human intelligence, it really can’t get any more epic than that. Not to mention how miniscule our presence is portrayed next to the monolith, a freaking brick that appears to lap our entire species in both time and knowledge.

It’s really the hinted infinite that makes this film all so darned epic. From our ability to create sentience in HAL like our creators before us to the fact that all of this is taking place in just one galaxy, the mind-blowingness of this film comes from it being a mere tip of a much bigger and more abstract berg of ice. Also it’s a great flick to watch on painkillers.

3. The Beautiful Beginning of Time in Tree Of Life

I’m not sure what’s more impressive: the stunning visuals of this sequence or the fact that a lot of it was done through practical effects. You can go ahead and thank effects genius Douglas Trumbull for that. The man has been blowing our minds visually ever since he created the Stargate sequence in 2001. He also worked on Blade Runner, and directed the Back To The Future ride. Good man.

Watching the making-of for this sequence, it appears that director Terrence Malick’s desire for an organic look to each shot is really what made it so uniquely beautiful. Even when it came time to CGI in dinosaurs, the goal was to use less known species – never making them the focus of any one shot. The idea was to have a beautiful image from the start and only later consider where they might stick a dinosaur in.

In the end, we were left with one of the most amazing, confusing sequences ever, a unique instance in time where the audience is both gasping in awe as well as walking out because they paid nine bucks to see Brad Pitt and got a bunch of freaking planets instead.

2. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Fantasia

Speaking of confusing movies, Fantasia had children around the world collectively wondering just what the hell they were watching. It was like the “Naked Lunch” for pre-schoolers, both hard to watch and hard to look away from. Of course years later those very same pre-schoolers would go on to discover drugs, and subsequently re-discover this film, but that’s nothing new.

Thing about dinosaurs is that they are the one and only thing you can teach to kids that they are actually willing to learn about. They are, after all, the single most interesting thing to ever happen on this planet. So while it only makes sense for Disney to tackle this subject, it’s kind of a surprise that they would do so in such a literal fashion. This sequence actually takes on everything from the evolution of species to their eventual and anticlimactic extinction from drought and starvation. Sure – they could have gone with a big asteroid hit (it certainly would have been a blast to animate) but they took the high road, managing to make slow and natural processes seem somehow exciting.

1. Star Wars, Yes, Star Wars


Oh my god shut up, it totally counts. How does this not count? It was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. That’s prehistoric. Also it’s a little disturbing to think about, because wherever and whenever this is exactly taking place, humans exist… or at least beings that look, act, and function exactly like humans.

That means that at some point, things either get really depressing for space life in general – what with the serious tech downgrade and all – or some dude flew all the way to the Milky Way Galaxy and dumped off some DNA, only to screw right back to magic robe land. Now we’re sitting here on this shitty rock like a dog out in the snow while everyone else gets to eat cake inside. Frankly, that really pisses me off. Why can’t we have some goddamned cake?

Maybe this does explain why the prequels seemed to have way cooler technology than the originals. They’re just slowly downgrading until they become a bunch of cave people again and have to start over and create Earth. If Disney were smart, it’ll just have Han Solo driving around in a Prius for the next film.

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