by Pauline Kael
Eighty thousand years ago, on broad primeval plains, Naoh (Everett McGill), the bravest warrior of the spear-carrying Ulam tribe, and two fellow-warriors, Amoukar (Ron Perlman) and Gaw (Nameer El-Kadi), are sent out on the sacred mission of finding fire and bringing it back to the Ulam. The science fantasy Quest for Fire is a full-length version of the ape-man prologue to 2001; it’s a heavy dose of Desmond (Naked Ape) Morris in 70-mm., with blaring Dawn of Consciousness music, and as Naoh, Amoukar, and Gaw fight off predatory animals and hideous, apier men you begin to wish you could detect famous actors under all the makeup, the way you could in the Biblical spectaculars. “The Stone Age is this ancient country from which we have all been exiled,” the screenwriter, Gérard Brach, has explained. “However, its memory remains in the collective unconscious, in the unconscious of each of us, regardless of race, creed, philosophy or social position. Quest for Fire transcends languages and nationalities and speaks to the deepest human experience.” It sounds like the ground plan for the U.N.
I’m sure that the film was no end of trouble to make, and that the mucky, scraggly landscapes (of the non-tourist areas of Africa, Scotland, and Canada where it was shot) couldn’t have been much fun to work in. But if it weren’t for the grisly closeups of confrontations between apelike men and beasts and between ape-men and ape-men, with the music working up a frenzy, the picture might be taken for a put-on. (If it were double-billed with the comedian Carl Gottlieb’s Caveman, its overblown solemnity might backfire.) Only one pleasant thing happens to the three Ulam on their travels: they encounter Ika (Rae Dawn Chong), of the highly developed mud-people tribe, the Ivaka. When they first see the smooth-skinned, bluish-looking Ika, who wears nothing but body paint, she has been captured by cannibals and is strung up like a deer carcass next to another slender young girl, whose arm has already been chewed off. Rescued by Naoh, Ika scampers after him and his pals, and stays close to them for protection, screaming shrilly at Amoukar’s attempt to jump her from behind, but accepting Naoh. When she runs away to her own village, he follows, and discovers that the Ivaka, who have pottery and the beginnings of a culture, know how to make fire. Later, Ika goes with him to the Ulam encampment and shows the Ulam the secret. It’s woman the fire-bringer in this very eighties movie—Promethea. Ika brings the Ulam fire like a dowry. She also teaches Naoh the missionary position, and they experience mutually satisfying sex; soon after, he pats her pretty little swollen tummy and, smiling, looks up at the moon—having presumably figured out the menstrual cycle.
It’s almost impossible to guess what the tone of much of this ape-man love story (based on a 1911 French novel, by J. H. Rosny, Sr.) is intended to be. Are we meant to laugh at the gaminess? At the men’s werewolf foreheads? (Thick hair sprouts about an inch above their eyebrows.) The director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, seems to be willing for us to laugh but not sure about how to tell us when. He must be aware that Amoukar has been made to look like George Lucas’s Chewbacca, and that Amoukar and the foolish Gaw are often like a team of baggypants comics without the pants. But probably Annaud doesn’t mean for us to laugh at the credentials of the people involved—Anthony Burgess, who “created” the “special languages,” and Desmond Morris, who “created” the “body language and gestures.” Surely Anthony Burgess wasn’t on the level when he came up with words like “wa wa” and “aga vau”? The cannibals are the Kzamm, and the Neanderthal plunderers with thick body hair, like gorillas, are called the Wagabou. The whole thing suggests one of those issues of National Geographic that kids used to pore over to see what furry people looked like naked. But the director seems to have aspirations that go beyond the Kubrick prologue and Star Wars to something—well, higher.
It’s that higher something which appears to be behind the gore and gruesomeness—the wolves and bears attacking and devouring, the ape-men hitting each other with clubs and bones. The picture keeps shoving torn flesh at us, continually demonstrating the bloody violence of our beginnings. The composer, Philippe Sarde, has really let himself go in the Stravinsky and Wagner department, and the soundtrack provides a mixture of a heavenly choir and electronic grunts and howls. The dubious Naked Ape theory of man’s innate violence is implicit in this way of showing human development, and it probably accounts for the film’s featuring the spear carrying Ulam, in their rough animal skins, as our ancestors. This is a new wrinkle in racism: the picture concentrates on the Ulam, who are potentially Caucasian. The implication of the title—that Naoh’s quest represents the beginning of civilization— is something of a fake, since the relatively peaceful, giggly Ivaka (and perhaps other tribes) know how to make fire and have devised ways of using it when the Ulam are still running around trying to steal it and carry it home.
Jean-Jacques Annaud has his own primitivism: the camera starts a scene from way back and then moves in—almost always in the same way. And he has a makeshift, linear approach to storytelling. He doesn’t seem to have discovered crosscutting yet. If, for example, Naoh goes into the cannibals’ camp to steal their fire while his buddies try to distract the cannibals and draw them away, the camera stays with Naoh and we don’t find out how things are going for the others. Menacing tribes or animals conveniently disappear while we follow the fortunes of another character. What’s fun in the movie is the makeup, and the way that the faces of Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, and Nameer El-Kadi are simian and yet attractive. (The sixties have made the ape look seem hip.) Amoukar and Gaw are like companionable monkeys—their brows are furrowed when they’re picking nits off each other. And Rae Dawn Chong, with stripes of dark paint across her face that make her look like a lemur, and her blue-clay-dyed nakedness and high-pitched chattering, slithers around amusingly. The makeup on the Kzamm and the Wagabou—who are like nasty, brutish versions of the citizens of Planet of the Apes—is entertaining in a giddy, horror-movie way. But the makeup on the animals is much less effective; the elephants draped in shag rugs so that they can simulate mammoths come out looking more like Muppets. And the sequence they’re in is a pipsqueak version of the Androcles and the Lion story: the mammoths attack the enemies of the Ulam because Naoh shows his respect for the giant beasts and offers their leader some grassy fodder. The sabres on the sabre-toothed tigers look pretty flimsy, but these big cats are part of the one likable sequence. Pursued by the tigers, the three Ulam warriors climb a weak, spindly tree and hang on at the top among the few branches. Trapped there as it grows dark, they get hungry and nibble a leaf or two; there’s a cut to the morning, and the men are still up in the tree, which is denuded.
New Yorker, March 8, 1982