Based on the popular novel by Jean Auel, "The Clan of the Cave Bear" man not be as good as "The Flintstones," but it's much sillier. Taking you back, back, in time to the dawn of man (or rather, woman), it is pop anthropology at its phonist.

At the outset, the clan, which seems to be caught somewhere on the evolutionary ladder between the development of the opposable thumb and the elimination of the brow ridge, loses its cave in an earthquake. Cave-shopping, they come across a little blond girl who's been mauled by a lion. The clan's medicine woman takes a shine to her, christens her Ayla, and carries her along on the journey.

Ayla grows to tawny womanhood (Daryl Hannah), but where's NOW when you need it? According to the rules of the clan (which are encoded in something called The Memories), a woman has to serve a man at his whim, and kneel while doing it. When Ayla balks at this, loutish Broud (Thomas G. Waites), the leader's heir, beats her, and follows it up the next day with a rape.

What follows is mostly a struggle between Ayla and this Prince Charming. Ayla comes to realize that she doesn't belong here, that she's one of The Others, the "new ones," the next step in the inexorable Darwinian progression toward Mozart, small French films and the home delivery of Chinese food.

Director Michael Chapman was formerly a classy cinematographer ("Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull"), and "The Clan of the Cave Bear" is, at least, beautifully shot. The action sequences (particularly the hunt of the musk ox) are fluid and exciting; Chapman makes adventurously subtle use of slow motion, and the movie is punctuated with stunning scenery, prospects of distant mountains and velvety blue skies. But that's part of the problem-"The Clan of the Cave Bear" is a bit too close to calendar art, its interiors a bit too by-the-hearth warm and orange, Hannah's hair a bit too golden.

Mostly, though, the problem with the movie lies in the story, which is slow and episodic. Ayla learns how to use a sling (even though women aren't supposed to hunt). Ayla learns the tricks of the medicine woman. Ayla goes to a Neanderthal convention.

While the appeal for screen writer John Sayles probably lay in the story's cryptofeminism, it's odd to see a writer best known for spinning out riffs for monologuists penning dialogue that consists mostly of grunts. Sayles (who has since repudiated the movie) created a special language for the clan, but subtitles were added, which brings the movie into the realm of the ridiculous. In one of her altercations with Broud, for example, he grunts and drools, and the subtitles say something like "Ayla must learn that in the way of the clan women kneel before men."

Now, we've all had our inarticulate moments when such subtitles would come in handy, but here, they only distance you from the action, as does the Vangelis-style synthesizer score, which refuses to leave you alone. At all times, "The Clan of the Cave Bear" never lets you forget it's 1986-it's always struggling to be accessible when it should be mysterious and weird. At the end, the long-legged, fleshy-faced Hannah, now her own woman, walks off into a valley that seems to be bathed in butter. She doesn't say it, so I will.

Yabba dabba doo.

The Clan of the Cave Bear, at area theaters, is rated PG-13 and contains nudity, violence and sexual situations