JUST as man's first ancestors slithered from the primal seas, so Daryl Hannah's movie career evolves -- from android to mermaid to Cro-Magnon super girl.

Hannah, tall, willowy and as fair as Wilma Flintstone, was born for the part of Ayla, the resourceful heroine of Jean M. Auel's antedeluvian adventure, "The Clan of the Cave Bear." But the physically agile actress is wasted in this sluggish screen version of the best-selling tale of clashing cultures.

Ayla is adopted, but not quite accepted by a backward Neanderthal clan after an earthquake destroys her more advanced tribe. As she matures, her superior mind and muscle threaten the leaders of the male-dominated tribe and test the tribal codes.

The movie is faintly directed by Michael Chapman of "All the Right Moves" and sloppily written by John Sayles of "The Brother From Another Planet" and "Baby, It's You." Auel, in fact, is suing the producers over the unauthorized story changes and historical inaccuracies in this inferior effort.

The adaptation was probably doomed from the start. Either of Auel's other two novels in the Earth Children series -- "Valley of the Horses" and "The Mammonth Hunters" -- would have been far more adaptable. The Cro- Magnon characters in those two tales can at least string sentences together. But the "Cave Bear" clan can only make monosyllabic palaver, using crude gestures to signal such basic messages as that's a beautiful hide you've got there; or would you, please, pass that auroch haunch. Next to the Cave Bears, Rambo is a chatterbox.

The paleolithic dialogue is supplemented with schoolmarmish narration and intrusive subtitles. "Quest for Fire," a movie on a similar subject, overcame the grunts without extraordinary devices, relying instead on better body language and characterization.

The action is stunted, the primal scenery unexploited by Chapman, who has primarily been a cinematographer. And Hannah, a visually exciting actress, looks ratty with her filthy, straggly hair and bony form. "Quest's" Rae Dawn Chong managed to look good in mud, and Raquel Welch wore false eyelashes in "One Million Years B.C."

In the book, the physical differences between the two peoples -- the Cro-Magnon Ayla and her adopted clan of Neanderthals -- are pivotal to the story. But the movie Ayla seems too physically like her cave cousins, who are only slightly more hirsute.

Pamela Reed is rather sweet as the medicine woman Iza who brings Ayla into the clan and teaches her their ways. James Remar is sort of okay as Creb, the crippled spiritual leader who takes a shine to Ayla, rightly foreseeing the passing of his people and the rise of the Others. Of course, primeval sagas don't usually attract your Laurence Oliviers.

"Clan's" greatest fault, however, is simply that it is an epic bore. -- Rita Kempley.

THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR (R) -- At area theaters.