The Film: 4/5
In the Paleolithic Europe of over 80,000 years ago, the primitive tribe the Ulam manage to survive through their possession of fire, which they use but have no idea how to create. When the ape-like Wagabu tribe stage a devastating surprise attack the remaining Ulam flee their home and lose the precious fire in the process. A tribal elder selects tribesmen Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (Ron Perlman), and Gaw (Nameer El-Kadi) to go off into previously unexplored lands and bring back more fire so the Ulam don't expire due to starvation and harsh weather conditions. On their sacred mission the trio encounter hostile rival tribes, saber-tooth tigers, a herd of Wooly mammoths, and a woman named Ika (Rae Dawn Chong) whom they rescue from one of the other tribes. To show her gratitude Ika follows Naoh and the others on their quest and eventually leads them to the home of her people, the more advanced Ivaka. While there Naoh is given the knowledge that will not only save his tribe from certain death but affect major change in all of their lives, but before they can return to the Ulam victorious there are greater dangers to overcome.
Until a few days ago I have never before had the pleasure of watching Quest for Fire; due to the unavoidable nudity displayed by its principal characters you won't find it playing even on the most liberal basic cable channel. Watching the film for the first time it was difficult at first to separate the artistic intentions of the filmmakers from the reputation mankind's primitive ancestors have received over the years as a walking pop culture punch line: that Ringo Starr movie Caveman, the Ice Age series, those damn Geico commercials and the short-lived ABC sitcom it inspired....let's face it, early man has been transformed into a sorry joke that was tired long before it started being told. Quest for Fire, which was based on a 1911 novel by Belgian author Joseph Henri Honore Boex (writing under the pseudonym "J.-H. Rosny"), attempts to portray prehistoric humans with sincerity, intelligence, and humanity. To date it's only the second movie directed by French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud that I've had any interest in seeing (the first is his factually-challenged World War II drama Enemy at the Gates), but what Annaud achieves in the making of Quest for Fire is a successful merging of prehistoric pageantry and entertaining adventure that feels as close to an authentic examination of the trials and tribulations of early man as we are likely to ever see on celluloid. Only a true filmmaker in complete command of their storytelling craft can pull this off with great success; this movie makes me want to check out others directed by Annaud.
The characters of Quest speak not a work of English or any other recognizable language intoned on this planet. Their dialect was created for this film by British novelist Anthony Burgess - yes, the man who wrote A Clockwork Orange - as he was also a master linguist who had taught himself Persian and translated Cyrano de Bergerac and Oedipus the King into Malay. Most of the dialogue spoken by the primitives is often limited to the guttural grunts and animalistic braying we've come to expect from these types of characters, but they are given short sentences and speeches that speak volumes about their hopes, confusion, and the sense they attempted to make of a world they knew precious little of before embarking on their important quest. The dialogue doesn't come with subtitles yet that matters little in the long run; even if we aren't able to understand exactly what each character is saying the expressive performances and finely-tuned body language (coordinated by Desmond Morris, author of the seminal zoological work The Naked Ape) by Annaud's cast enable us to imagine the English translations easily. The Ulam and other tribes featured in Quest for Fire aren't the most complex of thinkers. The screenplay by noted Roman Polanski collaborator Gerard Brach (Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac) keeps the film's central narrative of the search for the fire relatively clean and direct but never skimps on the smaller, character-building moments that make this adventure into the unknown a genuinely unforgettable experience that has the power to alter not just life but also the course of human evolution.
The central performances by Everett McGill, Rae Dawn Chong, Ron Perlman, and Nameer El-Kadi (the only member of the quartet previously unfamiliar to me) are all exceptional and deserve special merit for managing the difficult task of making their characters fully-realized and sympathetic despite being deprived of dialogue spoken in their native tongue and for being willing to let it all hang out anatomy-wise in order to better insert themselves into the mindset of prehistoric pre-humans. Chong in particular should be commended for going fully nude every moment she's on screen. McGill, Perlman, and El-Kadi make a great team of wannabe explorers ready to kill in order to survive but also highly appreciative of the knowledge they gain along the way - they even inadvertently create slapstick comedy in a few amusing scenes. McGill is wonderful as the young searcher with emerging leadership qualities and he allows his character Naoh some fleeting moments of silent wonder and poetry, such as when he peacefully gains the trust of a Wooly mammoth that would usually squash his ass like an annoying pest and the scene where he watches a member of Ika's tribe create fire from scratch with total fascination. Perlman can play brutish warrior and goofy comic relief simultaneously and with relative ease; his unique gifts as an actor were on full display here in his first feature film role. El-Kadi makes the most of the third wheel little brother character he was given and does well enough to not be completely overwhelmed by his cast-mates. Chong gives one of the best performances of her career in what was also her first movie role by imbuing Ika with a touching vulnerability and a core of feminine resilience that both endears her to Naoh and makes her a paradox to the others. Chong and McGill share a sweet romantic chemistry as their unlikely relationship blossoms and reaches a hilarious and sensual climax (literally) when they discover that sex can be just as pleasurable for the woman as it for the man.
Through the lens of cinematographer Claude Agostini Quest for Fire's vast, imposing landscapes look hypnotically impressive and alive with mystery and the promise of a new world coming into its own. Phillippe Sarde's (The Tenant) orchestral music score soars with high adventure and earthly emotion. The editing by Yves Langlois (The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane) is tight and keeps the focus on the titular quest but never forgets to pause and drink in the magnificent visuals and smaller character moments. The make-up effects are a marvel and allow the actors to perform in them without calling too much attention to the movie magic on display. Quest for Fire is simply an astounding cinematic experience that could never be replicated or bested in this day and age. It is a true original and one of the unsung greats of 1980's cinema.
Presented on a single 25 GB Blu-ray disc, Quest for Fire has been given a 1080p high-definition upgrade in visual quality in its original 2.35:1 widescreen theatrical exhibition aspect ratio, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC. The transfer is shaky on occasion with noticeable differences in the transfer depending on the scene. For the most part it looks really good. The bone-chilling cold of the scenes filmed in Canada, Iceland, and the Scottish Highlands and the scorching heat of the Kenyan locations are bolstered by the subtle increase in brightness and visual detail, while the grain content is kept at an appropriate amount so that the print maintains its rich filmic quality.
Second Sight has included two audio options for your viewing pleasure: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 PCM Stereo. With dialogue kept to a minimum - even when spoken in the Burgess-devised language - the filmmakers placed the emphasis on creating a vivid sound mix of ambient noise, animal roars, and Sarde’s lush orchestral score. When switched to the 5.1 channel the soundtrack volume can test the full strength of your speakers, but the track also brings out the most in the guttural primitive speak (even if you can’t understand it, at least you can still hear it clearly) and the other components of the full sound mix. Viewers without home theater set-ups might want to stick with the 2.0 track as it doesn’t give their televisions an unnecessary workout and functions just as well as the 5.1 though it doesn’t quite deliver the same impact. No subtitles have been included.
Most of the extras included on this release were ported directly from the 2003 Region 1 Fox DVD, starting with a pair of feature-length audio commentaries. The first features director Annaud going solo as he talks about the arduous journey of Quest for Fire from conception to completed fire and all of the production difficulties and triumphs in between. It’s a very technical track but the director shares some great insight into making this ambitious and original film and it’s well worth a cinephile’s listening time. The second brings together producer Michael Gruskoff and actors Perlman and Chong for a more anecdote-driven commentary that is warm, informative, and at times hilarious (mostly due to Perlman, who always gives great commentary). The three participants have a wonderful time recounting their experiences making the movie, and if you stay through the end credits you’ll get to hear a terrific story from Perlman about his awkward encounter with Orson Welles at a Los Angeles around the time of the film’s U.S. premiere.
The vintage documentary “The Making of Quest for Fire” (25 minutes) was produced for promotional purposes when the movie first hit theaters. Despite its origins as a marketing tool this is a very intelligent and thorough doc about the film’s incredible international production. Extensive interviews with Annaud, Gruskoff, and Burgess stand in for the traditional detached narration and actors McGill, Perlman, Chong, and El-Kadi pop up briefly to discuss their characters. Behind-the-scenes footage showing the filming of certain scenes and Burgess creating the language used by the primitive tribesmen throughout the story is also included.
Annaud also offers commentary for fifteen video still galleries (48 minutes): Inspiration, Locations - Iceland, Locations - Kenya, Storyboards, Inspiration for Sets, Set Design, Prop Design, Casting & Training, Costumes, Make Up, Burgess Dictionary, Mammoths, Behind the Scenes, Production Shots, and Promotion. This makes a fantastic companion piece for the commentaries as the galleries unveil a veritable treasure trove of candid images. With the director’s commentary it’s like getting a guided tour through the lengthy production process of Quest for Fire.
New to this Blu-ray is a video interview with Annaud (33 minutes) that is presented in French with English subtitles. Though the featurette covers a significant portion of the filmmaker’s career most of the running time is devoted to Quest for Fire. The interview is worth it for what he discusses that isn’t related to Quest because there really isn’t much here you won’t learn from listening to his commentary track.
That wraps up the supplements on this disc. But I can’t end this review without commending Second Sight for including the beautiful artwork for the British quad release poster as the cover art for Quest for Fire’s Blu-ray debut. This is one of the most striking images to serve as home video packaging art since the glory days of VHS, and it puts the ugly and unimaginative “floating heads” covers we have to deal with here in the U.S. on most of our Blu-ray and DVD releases to the greatest shame.
A rare story of the epic struggles of our primitive forebears told with seriousness, Quest for Fire is an absorbing and exciting film to stir the soul and provoke enlightening discussion. Its authenticity will forever be in question, but as a document of the early years when the evolution of humankind started taking shape it’s as close as we’re ever going to get to knowing exactly what those times were like. Second Sight’s Blu-ray release is a fantastic step up from previous home video incarnations, making Quest for Fire an absolutely essential purchase for lovers of ambitious filmmaking.