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Creationists need not apply, and perhaps not even scientists, with with French director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s (Seven Years in Tibet; The Lover) 1981 adaptation of J.H. Rosny Sr.’s 1911 novel, Quest for Fire. Set 80,000 years ago in Paleolithic Europe, the adventure follows a group of Neanderthals who have the ability to keep and use fire, but not the ability to make it. When the tribe is attacked by a competing Homo erectus tribe and the firekeeper barely escapes with his life, but the flame is all but completely doused in water and goes out, the Neanderthals are left in danger of dying from cold and starvation. The elder then send three males on a treacherous journey to find fire, and their journey leads them to cross paths with another cannibalistic tribe who feed on Homo sapiens, which is how the three meet the more advanced, Homo sapien female Ika (Rae Dawn Chong), who becomes the mate of the Neanderthal’s dominant male Naoh’s (Everett McGill) mate.
The film uses a specific dialogue for the Neanderthal’s created by writer Anthony Burgess, and body language and gestures choreographed by renowned zoologist Desmond Morris. Both of these things offer up an authenticity to the film, despite the inaccuracies of science owing to both the original source and the year in which the film was produced.
Despite the flaws of age, Annaud’s visuals are resplendent, whether we’re looking at the African plains or the cold volcanic terrains of Iceland, where the film was shot. The actors pull off the feral movements and sounds with great effect, and one poignant scene between Noah the Neanderthal and Ika the Homo sapien, in which she introduces him to the world of the more intimate, tender, missionary style “lovemaking”, rather than the usual, rough and quick, bestial copulation from behind, is probably the most powerful moment of the entire film, that brings it all home.
This AVC/MPEG-4 1080p encodement of Quest for Fire from Second Sight is rather uneven. From the opening scene, we see some washed out blacks, and while things do pick up a bit from there, the grittiness of the image remains straight through he film. There are even some moments where some obvious video noise presents itself and a bit of source damage in the form of tramlines and the like. Color saturation is probably the greatest strength of this transfer, where the colors of the flames, sunrises and sunsets really pop nicely, and there are also a few moments during some of the brighter sequences where we get some nice clarity, texture, and detail.
Despite being labelled on the packaging and on the disc menu as having a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, Quest for Fire here comes with only a lossy DTS 5.1 mix as well as an uncompressed LPCM 2.0 (48kHz/16-bit) mix. The 5.1 sound is good and some moments that engulf you, like the growl of sabre-toothed cats that come from behind, but this mix isn’t as balanced and clean as the far more pleasing stereo version. The stereo has less crackle, wide stereo imaging, and just as much of a natural, ambient sound without the ineffective, artificiality of the 5.1 mix.
We get two audio commentaries, but all the video extras are SD port-overs.
- Commentary by Jean-Jaques Annaud
- Commentary by Ron Perlman, Rae Dawn Chong, and Michael Gruskoff
- Interview with Jean-Jacques Annaud (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:33:06)
- The Making of Quest for Fire (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:24:49)
- Video Gallery with Jean-Jacques Annaud Commentary (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:48:01):
- Locations – Iceland
- Locations – Kenya
- Inspirations for Sets
- Set Design
- Prop Design
- Casting & Training
- Burgess Dictionary
- Behind the Scenes
- Production Shots
The Definitive Word
Quest for Fire, a film full of grunts, scowls, and heavily made-up actors will not be for everyone, particularly those anti-evolution crowds. But Quest for Fire is a surprisingly enjoyable film. It has its flaws, but for what it is, it is a fascinating look back through time.