All of what we call "civilization" is but a blink of an eye in comparison to the vast expanse of human prehistory. What was it like for our human and proto-human ancestors, discovering tool making and fire for the first time, taking the first tentative steps out of the African cradle into the wider world? How did our languages and culture develop? Did our ancestors feel as we feel, dream as we dream? Quest for Fire sets out to offer an answer to some of those questions, taking us to a time 80,000 years ago and offering an imaginative vision of the lives of early human beings.
Quest for Fire (original title: La guerre du feu) makes us recognize the extent to which humans rely on technology: we are defined not by our physical strength (puny compared to a lion or a mammoth) but by our ability to manipulate the environment. But we did not leap full-fledged from the African savannah to the high-tech environment of today: in fact, the vast majority of the time that Homo sapiens has existed as a species, human beings lived much like they do in Quest for Fire. We see that the line between death and life, misery and (relative) comfort balances on the characters' ability to control one essential technology: fire.
The all-important nature of fire is what drives the story in this film, and adds to the tension level; for these characters, there is no safety net, no cushion between life and grisly death as something's next meal. When the characters' tribe loses their source of fire, the importance of the title quest is dramatic and apparent: they must find fire if they are to live and prosper. The film follows three main characters in this quest, and while their task is simple enough, it takes them far afield, where they encounter strange and threatening situations as well as new experiences that will forever change their lives. The actors do an excellent job of portraying their characters; all of the people we get to know in the film have distinctly different personalities that come across even without dialogue that we can understand. The film's pacing is excellent as well, moving along steadily with always something interesting going on, and effectively mixing in a few lighter moments into the generally dramatic tone of the film overall.
Everything about the film is beautifully realized: from the location settings in Canada, Scotland, and Kenya that capture the raw, rugged landscape that our proto-human ancestors lived in, to the accurate representation of the tools, clothing, and housing that were used 80,000 years ago. Some elements had to be imaginatively extrapolated by the filmmakers, like language and body paint, since these things leave no traces in the archaeological record, but the invented and the documented are seamlessly woven together in the film, and are highly convincing.
Novelist Anthony Burgess (best known for A Clockwork Orange) was responsible for creating the languages used in the film; the care taken in this department adds yet one more layer of authenticity to the film. By the end of the film, I was even picking up a few meanings here and there, like the word for fire.
One of the most interesting things about Quest for Fire is that the protagonists are not actually humans like us. I'm not sure exactly what species they were intended to represent (most likely Neanderthals, but potentially Homo erectus), but in the course of the film, we do encounter beings who are clearly humans as we know them today: Homo sapiens. The interesting part of this is that by this point, we have come to identify clearly with the Neanderthal characters, and the humans seem very alien with their different gestures, behavior, and culture. The film cunningly asks us to define "human" in our minds, and shows that the boundaries are really quite fuzzy.
Quest for Fire can't be taken as a completely accurate rendition of early human history, since much has been discovered since then that changed the current theories of human evolution and prehistory, but the attention to detail and accuracy that went into its making in 1981 means that it actually does stand up quite well to scrutiny twenty years later. One of the noteworthy aspects of the science behind Quest for Fire is that the renowned sociologist/biologist Desmond Morris was responsible for creating the body language and gestures used by the actors in the film. Morris, the author of the famous analysis of human behavior The Naked Ape, has a clear understanding of the biological basis for culture, with the result is that the characters in Quest for Fire are completely convincing as people of their time. These are not Hollywood cavemen; these are our ancestors.
The anamorphic widescreen image preserves the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The image quality is excellent. The print is extremely clean, with no noise or any print flaws at all. The film's color palette reflects the wide variety of colors, both bright and subtle, that are available in the natural setting: the tawny brown of the savannah, the rich green of the forest, the velvety gray of ash, and of course the dazzling reds and oranges of fire. All these colors look great on the transfer, with a natural, vivid look. Some grain is apparent in the darkest scenes, and edge enhancement is visible at times, but neither particularly detracts from the overall visual experience; overall, Quest for Fire has received an excellent transfer to DVD.
The soundtrack for Quest for Fire is presented in a very nicely handled Dolby 5.1. There's obviously not much dialogue, but Philippe Sarde's lovely, evocative musical score takes a central place in the sound experience of the film. There isn't much use of discrete surround effects, but the overall balance of the 5.1 track is handled well, providing an enjoyable audio experience. The sound overall is clear and clean, with no background noise or distortion; the music is balanced very well with both environmental sounds and the actors' voices.
Don't be fooled by the fact that Quest for Fire doesn't boast any "special edition" banners: the special features on this DVD are excellent.
First of all, the film has two full-length audio commentaries: the first by director Jean-Jacques Annaud, which focuses on the making of the film and technical aspects such as locations or makeup, and the second by producer Michael Gruskoff and actors Rae Dawn Chong and Ron Perlman, which focuses more on the experience of being in the film.
In addition, there is a set of fifteen photo galleries covering different aspects of the film, each with commentary by Jean-Jacques Annaud: the topics include inspirations for the film, locations, set, prop, and costume design, makeup, storyboards, casting and training, and production. A 22-minute featurette titled "Quest for Fire Adventure" has a promotional slant to it but still includes interesting material, such as Annaud discussing the theme of the film.
A trailer for the film is also included. Menus are attractive and easy to navigate.
Quest for Fire is above all an extremely creative film: telling an exciting story without the need for dialogue in a modern language, and transporting the viewer back into the world of 80,000 years ago to experience life as it may have been like for our distant ancestors. I found the film to be highly enjoyable, and with its excellent transfer and special features I highly recommend picking up a copy.