Videodrome :: In Appreciation of Quest for Fire

(Welcome to Videodrome. A monthly column plumbing the depths of vintage underground cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir and beyond.)

Every so often, I go back to Quest for Fire. Whether it’s to ground me in visceral reminder of man’s wild natural state, or to put modern technology into perspective, or most commonly, just to enjoy its savage charms as a standalone piece of art, I return to watch it again. Usually late at night, almost always alone. Since my first viewing in 1988 (six years after its American debut), I’ve reveled in the scope of this film and its capacity to inspire awe and curiosity.

I once heard someone describe Director Jean-Jacques Annaud as the world’s best director of films in which no one speaks. It’s a fair characterization, as his works also include famously quiet films such as The Bear and Seven Years in Tibet. But upon deeper consideration, this isn’t just a snarky criticism–there is a distinct skillfulness required to tell a moving story with little or no language. It’s a feat that demands the capture of raw emotion and intellect through context. And Annaud has mastered the art.

It should be said of prehistoric films that the genre itself is a bit of an outlier. Sitting somewhere between sci-fi and historical non-fiction, Quest for Fire also has the element of fantasy going for it. After all, with no empirical record to fact check for accuracy, who can call out a filmmaker for depicting a colorful arena of mythical megafauna, cannibalistic troglodytes, and environmental hazards of the fairy tale variety?

On a surface level, that is what this movie is about. A fantasy adventure in the style of the great epics of the big screen, with sweeping landscapes and orchestral crescendos. It’s the saga of three cavemen who are forced by necessity to trek into the wilderness in search of their tribe’s only salvation, fire.

Transcending their primal utterances and ape-like gestures, the main characters gradually become enjoyable to watch and easy to root for. On this familiar hero’s journey, like so many action yarns, they find danger, treasure, loss and love. And symbolically, we feel a shared pride in their redemption, as theirs is the story of us.

But it’s so much more than that.

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