Movies about Stone Age life have been so few that just one past effort could be taken seriously, the rest being funny — intentionally or otherwise. Belatedly offering non-laughable companionship to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1981 “Quest for Fire” is “Out of Darkness,” a lean, mean adventure story on the cusp of horror that firsttime feature director Andrew Cumming imbues with tension and handsome visual atmospherics.
Titled “The Origin” when it premiered at BFI London Fest in fall 2022, since retitled (presumably to avoid confusion with Ava DuVernay’s current “Origin”), it’s a strong genre piece lent real novelty by being set approximately 45,000 years ago. Bleecker Street opens the U.K. indie production on more than 500 U.S. screens this Friday, simultaneous with a home-turf release.
We meet our protagonists around a campfire — unlike those of “Quest,” set circa 80,000 B.C., these prehistoric ancestors have figured that much out — as they air hopes in their search for a “promised land” of safety and plentitude. Leading the small group is stern Adem (Chuku Modu), who already has a son in Heron (Luna Mwezi), and perhaps another on the way via heavily pregnant Ave (Iola Evans). Geirr (Kit Young) is his milder-mannered brother, also a hunter, while the older, crusty Odal (Arno Luning) is valued for his foraging skills. Tentatively accepted yet acutely aware of her fragile status, given the scarcity of resources, is teen Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), a “stray” picked up en route.
We’re not sure where these half-dozen are coming from, or why they left. But initial signs are not good that the new land they’ve come to (“Darkness” was shot in Scotland, as was much of “Quest”) will prove any easier. There is no visible game, nor edible vegetation; this rugged terrain of heather-strewn rocky hills seems barren, promising only starvation. Superstitious Odal fears the place may be beset by “demons.” Then night falls, and everyone else worries he might be right — particularly after an unearthly cry from the dark beyond their campsite fire heralds one member of the party being snatched away by something too quick to be seen.
That unlucky sojourner happens to be the one person here that otherwise pitiless Adem cannot bear losing. So against even his own better judgment, the remaining five descend into the dense woods they had hoped to avoid. Sure enough, things get “Blair Witch” in a hurry, as never-quite-glimpsed antagonists seem to lurk everywhere, the helplessness of the situation pitting our heroes (armed only with spears) against each other, too. As their number dwindles, Beyah becomes both scapegoat for ill-fortune and the best bet to survive — despite this mini-tribe’s strict gender roles, adversity brings out a warrior instinct in her, while the others panic and despair.
Ben Fordesman’s widescreen photography renders the open Highlands both beautiful and hostile. That effect only heightens once characters are forced into the forest, where they easily lose their sense of direction, and lethal foes have infinite hiding places. The unseen menace keeps suspense taut, though some will find the resolution of its mystery a bit heavy-handed, as well as tricky to reconcile with prior events.
The capable actors take some getting used to, as it’s hard to fully disguise the benefits of a comfortable modern upbringing — while aptly clad in Michael O’Connor’s animal-skin costumes, they look a bit too bright-eyed and glossy to have been living rough their whole lives. Still, Ruth Greenberg’s screenplay takes care to provide them with credible-enough personalities and interpersonal dynamics; we are not in the campy caveman realm of loinclothed Victor Mature or fur-bikini’d Raquel Welch here.
Performers speak a subtitle-translated “Tola” language invented by Daniel Andersson, the project’s chief academic adviser alongside archaeological consultant Rob Dinnis. It will be noted (and no doubt decried in some quarters) that the primary humans depicted are not Caucasian, but run a gamut of darker skin tones, reflecting up-to-date expert speculation on Paleolithic peoples.
Of course, just how “historically accurate” all this is remains anyone’s guess. What works on-screen are the basic but invaluable elements of striking visuals and a mood of palpable danger that occasionally explodes into blunt violence. Further helping maintain a tenor of anxious vulnerability is Adam Janota Bzowski’s original score, which is almost exclusively percussive. On a story level, “Out of Darkness” may be less than memorable, but its simultaneously poetical and perilous atmosphere leaves a strong impression, stirring anticipation for whatever Cumming (whose résumé previously consisted of shorts and TV episodes) will do next.