Monday, July 16, 2007

Quest for Fire (Annaud, 1981)

For years I’ve wondered why they don’t make more films like Quest for Fire, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s bold and beautiful adaptation of the J.H. Rosny novel. After all, considering the origins of our species is a gateway for all sorts of provocative questions about what made us what we are and why. There is something mesmerizing about fire - even today when our scientific knowledge runs much deeper. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of sitting around a campfire musing about how such a simple phenomenon makes so many extraordinary things possible.

Quest for Fire takes us back to a time when different tribes of early humans roamed the earth. More often than not, a collision of tribes leads quickly to violence, particularly when one group possesses that which is necessary for the other group’s survival. It is one such clash that serves as the film’s inciting incident. We witness a skirmish in which one group is forced to flee from the safety of their homes in order to escape from a group that is much more aggressive. In the process, they extinguish their master flame, leaving them in darkness. The astute viewer will note that this darkness is both literal and figurative as it becomes clear that the mastery of fire is vital for the tribe to progress towards the next stage of evolution.

The stakes that are set up are extraordinarily high; however, as three of the tribesmen begin their quest to travel the countryside in search of a new flame, it becomes clear why prehistoric dramas are an exceedingly rare commodity. For one thing, we have to consider the rate at which technological and cultural progression occurred in these early times. Whereas 21st century humans can open up the newspaper (or better yet, surf to their favorite news website) any day of the week and read about an extraordinary discovery or development in the world of science, the accomplishments of early humans – critical though they were – occurred over the course of tens of thousands of years. It therefore becomes difficult to compress scientific awakening into a two-hour drama without the result coming across as at least somewhat comical. What are the odds, for example, that one fateful journey could lead one prehistoric man to discover not only a method for creating fire from scratch, but also laughter, spears and the missionary position?

Despite the challenges, Annaud does an excellent job evoking an era of history that is based on a comparatively tiny amount of scientific knowledge. Using a made-up prehistoric language and careful observations about the social interactions of primates, Annaud constructs a world that is plausible enough for us to invest in characters that express themselves mostly through grunts, shrieks and growls. Although anachronistic moments inevitably slip through – such as a couple instances of shtick from Ron Perlman lifted directly from vaudeville - more often that not, the experience of speculating on how our distant ancestors struggled for basic survival without a fraction of the comforts that we now enjoy is humbling and spiritually stirring.

While individual moments may seem a silly or contrived, the overall result is a film that is admirable for the vision displayed by its director and the courage and the courage displayed by its cast. You may wish that Annaud had allowed himself to venture even further away from the conventions of the three-act mentality; however, you will probably be glad that the film exists at all and that he has taken you as far as he does.



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