Monday, July 21, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Quest for Fire (1982)

I ordered this Jean-Jacques Annaud classic from Netflix last week to wash away the funk left by Roland Emmerich's silly and lugubrious 10,000 BC, and I'm glad I did.

This is how a prehistoric film should be done; no question about it. This is an exciting, action-packed adventure with memorable characters and an inspiring message about human nature.

I've admired Quest for Fire ever since I saw it in the theater back in 1982, but it's good to know for certain that the movie holds up well even after twenty-five years. This is a film that is authentically epic in scale (like 10,000 BC sought to be); one that attempts accuracy in the language of its cave-man protagonists (grunts and groans all the way around...); but which also isn't historically inaccurate in a way that makes you laugh or wince. The cave-men here don't wander into Giza and find the pyramids under construction. Thankfully.

Thematically, Quest for Fire -- based on the novel by J.H. Rasny - offers a unique narrative and commentary about man's unique capacity to change (I was going to say his ability to "evolve"); to adapt to new technologies and new developments in his always-difficult existence. That life, as we see here, was nasty, brutish and short.

Set some "80,000 years ago," this "science fantasy adventure" (as it was billed in the original theatrical trailer) specifically concerns the primitive Ulam tribe. Annaud's observant camera introduces us to this Cro-Magnon clan and the rhythms of primitive life, and it almost feels like we're watching a documentary for the first fifteen minutes or so. We see the tribes' people sleep (together, in a large communal cave), share a meal, even mate (there's precious little romance in this quick act...), and, finally, tend to their fire.

That last bit is especially important. The Ulam lack the capacity to make the fire for themselves, so they have assigned a Fire Keeper or guardian to keep a small flame eternally lit. Why? Fire ("the great mystery" according to the film's opening card), is the one thing that keeps the tribe alive. It provides warmth; light, and the means to cook food. Without it, the Ulam would descend into darkness, cold and despair. Yet they don't understand fire. It's a thing to be captured; to be found. To be sought.

Then, one day, the lurking Wagabu (a tribe of primitive homo erectus) launch a surprise attack on the Ulam, and it's like a Stone Age 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. The sanctuary of the Ulam cave is breached. Men are killed (in extremely violent and bloody fashion) and women are dragged away. And the sacred fire is nearly extinguished. The Fire Keeper manages to keep the flame lit for a short time, but soon it winks out, leaving the Ulam tribe -- now wandering in a primordial, misty bog --- little hope for continued survival. Accordingly, three of the best warriors in the tribe, Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (Ron Perlman) and Gaw (Nameer El-Kadi) are tasked with a seemingly-impossible mission: to find fire and bring it back to the tribe.

The quest begins, and on this incredible odyssey across a wild landscape, the three men encounter sabre-toothed tigers (which chase them up a tree...), mastodons, and other terrors of the Paleolithic Age. In the film's most frightening scene, the Ulam triumvirate confronts the Kzamm, a neanderthal tribe of cannibals. Our heroes attempt to steal fire from these monstrous, hulking creatures, but it's a botched attempt.

Still, during the struggle, Naoh and the others manage to free Ika (Rae Dawn Chong), a beautiful female of the advanced Ivaka tribe. Adorned solely in body paint (otherwise totally nude), Ika is resourceful, bright and one of us...a homo sapien. She introduces the Ulam warriors to the concept of laughter (not to mention the wonders of the missionary position...), and soon becomes the team's most valuable player; at least until, homesick, she decides to return to her tribe. Heartbroken by her departure, a smitten Naoh follows Ika back to her people, and after a series of ritual humiliations (including public sex with a line-up of very obese women...), is introduced to a world of new technology. The Ivaka, you see, can make fire. It is an art they teach Naoh. Also, the Ivaka can craft arrows, make pottery and build free-standing shelters. It's a brave new world.

After some time living happily as an Ivaka, Naoh is coerced by Amoukar and Gaw to return to their people. Ika, who has fallen in love with Naoh, goes with them on the trip. In the end, Naoh vanquishes a rival in his clan, and Ika teaches the Ulam to make fire. No longer is it "magic;" something beyond the grasp of their understanding. Now it is simply...a tool.

The last scene of the film, a beautifully staged, evocative medium shot, reveals a pregnant Ika cradled tenderly in Naoh's strong arms, as they look skyward expectantly, bathed in moonlight. The next generation will be one born with the knowledge to make fire; to build shelter; to carry light spears/arrows. Mankind has taken a big step forward and we have witnessed the journey.

Even today, the human animal gets a lot of things wrong, no question. We pollute our environment and we wage war, specifically. But Quest for Fire reminds the viewer that the human experience is always evolving; that a new technology could be invented or discovered, one that makes our struggle for immortality that much closer to reality; that makes our burdens that much lighter. You can watch, in Quest for Fire, how Naoh integrates new weapons, new science, into his primitive life...and is the better for it.

This theme got me thinking about my own relatively uneventful life, and I realized suddenly that twenty years ago, I had never logged on the Internet, blogged a post, written an e-mail or used a cell phone. And ten years before that, I had never sent a fax. Just in the span of my adult life-time, the way I "live" has changed radically. I guess I'm like Naoh after a fashion (we all are...). In just the span of this film, the dark, mysterious world of the Ulam becomes significantly brighter because of interaction with the Ivaka and their technology.

This is nothing less than the story of the entire human experience: the great and unending quest to make our lives less uncomfortable; less difficult. I don't use the word "comfortable" lightly. I don't mean that we're lazy. I mean that the flow of human history is to make survival (and our children's survival) less a risk and more a guarantee: with science, with technology, and hopefully with wisdom. That's why it hurts me so much to see the anti-intellectual, anti-science nuts gaining so much traction in this country's discourse today. If man had let superstition win out in the prehistoric past....we never would have survived. We never would have learned to make fire. We would have died out in that swamp.

The march of progress, however, isn't always great or easy for everyone. The Fire Keeper in Quest for Fire, for instance, is out of a job in the Ulam Tribe, his skills no longer needed. This may be the first case of downsizing in history...

I also find it immensely interesting that it is a woman who - basically - brings civilization to Naoh's people in this film. She teaches Naoh how to make love as well as make fire. And, watching the final scenes of the film, you have to countenance the idea that she also teaches him the critical (and in my experience, female...) quality of patience. Where - I wonder - would mankind be without womankind?

Visually arresting, and loaded with gory action sequences, Quest for Fire is a fascinating adventure that considers with great verisimilitude "what might have been" in our long ago past. The shots that book-end the film: nearly identical pans across a desolate dark valley lit by a single fire, serve to remind us how hard our journey has been; that mankind's survival over the ages is not a miracle; not a gift from non-existent deities. But rather the result of our own resourcefulness and ingenuity in the face of a harsh and dark environment. Don't praise God. Don't praise fire. Or magic. Praise the human spirit. It got us where we are today.

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