Thursday, March 1, 2012

Quest for Fire (1981)

Title: Quest for Fire (1981)

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud

Cast: Rae Dawn Chong, Ron Perlman


While watching Jean Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire, I wasn’t aware that this French director had made so many films that I’ve enjoyed. For example Annaud was behind Enemy at the Gates (2001) and Seven Years in Tibet (1997). He also made a film I love very much: In the Name of the Rose (1986) an anti-religious film about two monks (Sean Connery and Christian Slater) who are sent to explore a series of murders that have taken place in a secluded monastery up on the hills of Italy. What I loved about In the Name of the Rose was that Annaud and his team of filmmakers actually went to Italy, found these amazing looking castles and locations and shot their film there. Nowadays filmmaking has gotten so lazy that if they had to film a film like In the Name of the Rose, they’d probably make the castles in CGI; but not Annaud. Annaud comes from the same school of filmmaking as Werner Herzog which teaches that shooting your film in real life existing locations is always better then special effects!

Annaud applied this same rule when the time came to shoot Quest for Fire, a film about cavemen surviving in the big bad prehistoric world. Quest for Fire was shot in various countries: Kenya, Canada, Iceland and Scotland. When we see these cavemen exploring the world in their travels we get these amazing vistas, not matte paintings, no computer generated images but actual mountains, rivers and forests which of course makes the film that much more real. Speaking of realism, this film achieves it rather well. I dare to say that this is the best cavemen film ever made. I have never seen this era depicted as realistically as here. The only other film that can probably compare is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) which if you remember correctly opens during the time of the cavemen, when man had not yet discovered the advent of tools and weapons. Speaking of Kubrick’s 2001, many reviewers compare Quest for Fire with 2001’s opening sequence and I have to say I completely agree. Annaud shot the film with a Kubrickian level of authenticity and perfection. Another aspect of the film that gets compared to Kubrick's style of filmmaking is it's beautiful orchestral score, it really adds tot he majesty of the already astounding visuals. 

So what’s Quest for Fire all about? Well, it tells the story of three cavemen out in search for fire. You see, in this day and age (80,000 years ago to be precise) the survival of man depends on having fire. If you don’t have it, you die. The different tribes of humans and ape men all fight for it. In this film we are presented with the idea that there are different kinds of humans, some more evolved then others. On this film we get equal parts Homo sapiens, Homo-erectus’s and even Neanderthals. So the three main characters have to venture into this savage world filled with Sabretooths and Woolly Mammoths to find fire for their tribe, or the tribe dies. So the film is their adventures across the peril filled land. This film presents us with a time in human existence where life was all about being the strongest and surviving.  

This was Ron Perlman’s debut film and he does a convincing portrayal of a primitive caveman. He moves like a half-human half-monkey. He grunts to communicate and eats tree leaves for dinner. The film also stars a very young Rae Dawn Chong. In my opinion, Quest for Fire was Rae Dawn Chong’s finest day as an actress, it takes something to appear in naked and in body paint through out a whole film! In Quest for Fire she portrays a member of a slightly more advanced tribe of humans, they’ve developed a language, they’ve mastered art, learned how to use tools and weapons and they’ve even discovered humor! I thought this was an interesting aspect of the film, we meet various human tribes, some more evolved than others; some are closer to being monkeys, while others are closer to a human. Some grunt, some have a language, some don’t know how to make fire while others master it. In other words, in this film we see how humans can learn from each other to improve the human race as a collective.

We are also presented with the idea that violence has always been a part of who we are; on this film when two tribes meet, their first thoughts are to attack each other. By the way, the battles between tribes get pretty graphic on this movie so be ready for that. Also, the sex scenes are pretty graphic and violent as well, these are cavemen we are talking about; back in those days there was no law, no moral values. If a caveman liked a lady caveman, he would just go for her right then and there. But I did appreciate that the film has one caveman actually discovering the difference between lust and genuinely caring and loving somebody else. 

An extremely interesting aspect of this film is that Anthony Burgess came up with the caveman’s dialect; in other words, he invented a language for this film alone! But inventing new languages and words was nothing new for Anthony Burgess; as some of you may know he was the writer behind AClockwork Orange, a novel in which his characters speak ‘Nasdat’, a language which Burgess created specifically for that novel. Burgess was an expert in idioms and languages; he actually taught himself how to speak Persian if you can believe it! So when the filmmakers behind Quest for Fire needed to find someone to put ‘words’ into these cavemen’s mouths, they went with Burgess because of his expertise and background in linguistics; the result was a language called ‘Ulam’. 

Watching a film like Quest for Fire is an interesting experience, it’s the kind of film that will spark up conversations about the origins of man and how we all got here. It’ll get people talking about Creation vs. Evolution. Since the film has no dialog that we can understand, this allows for viewers to comment on what is happening on screen as they watch the film at the same time. But be advised, this is the kind of film where you have to try and interpret the story by the actions and visuals, not by dialog or exposition, so in some ways Quest for Fire functions like a silent film. The film is stunning visually, filled with beautiful vistas shot in real locations, but at the same time the film can be ugly and brutal. There is a rawness to it that can catch you off guard. Quest for Fire won the Oscar for best make up effects; some of these actors had to be in make-up for up to five hours every day to look like Neanderthals. It also won 2 Cesar Awards (the French Oscars) both for best director and best film, these very well deserved awards because it takes some ‘Cojones’ to go around the world making a film about prehistoric people. In my book, Quest for Fire is an extremely underrated film and should be seen my more cinephiles. Give it a chance, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Rating: 5 out of 5  


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