Quest for Fire ★★★★★

I'm in the middle right now of reading Yuval Harari's remarkable Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which in 300 pages charts the entire history of the human race from the dawn of existence up to the 21st century. It's the first time I've ever realized that there was actually at one point at least a dozen different species of humans that roamed the Earth simultaneously, much like how in the dog kingdom you have labradors and boxers and poodles; and that our version, Cro-Magnon human (which would eventually be known as homo sapiens), outlived all the others because of some mysterious event around 70,000 years ago, in which they got a whole lot smarter than all the other human species in just a matter of a dozen generations, which among other developments led to a period when modern humans were competing for the same land and resources as their dumber cousins the Neanderthals, and handedly winning that competition because of their profoundly better ability to communicate, store information, and work as a group.

This has all had me thinking about a couple of movies that came out when I was in high school that concern this very subject, ones I've never watched before because I really wasn't interested in the topic until now, 1981's Quest for Fire and 1986's The Clan of the Cave Bear; so on a lark I thought I'd finally watch them both this week as I finish up Harari's book. Quest for Fire is the first one I took on, which turned out to very, very clearly be the better of the two, and in fact so good that I now kind of regret waiting so long to see it in the first place. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (whose very next film would be the most famous of his career, the revisionist Medieval detective actioner The Name of the Rose), and notable for being the feature debut of incredible character actor Ron Perlman, this is an ultra-realistic look at what life for these first homo sapiens was probably like, including the bold decision to have most of them walk around mostly naked and to engage in sex in the animalistic way that befitted their times. (In fact, it was this issue that led to this also being the feature debut of Rae Dawn Chong, in that she was one of the few actresses Annaud auditioned who didn't mind being naked essentially for the entire shoot.)

The title neatly encapsulates what the movie's all about -- at its start, our Cro-Magnon tribe doesn't know how to make fire themselves, which forces them to keep a little flame going 24 hours a day, which puts their very existence in danger when it gets accidentally extinguished during a raid by a neighboring hostile tribe of Neanderthals. The teens who were on sentry and accidentally let the hostiles in are banished from the tribe until they can manage to find a source of fire again and bring it back; and that's essentially what our movie is, watching the three of them brave the everyday dangers of life during caveman times, avoid the Neanderthals, and eventually stumble across another Cro-Magnon tribe that teaches them how to make fire by rubbing two sticks together (leading to one of the best "MY MIND IS FREAKING BLOWN!" scenes in the entire history of cinema).

The key to this movie being so good is that Annaud and co. take it very, very seriously, attempting no less than to present what a documentary would look like if modern humans could somehow transport themselves with cameras back to 70,000 BC; and it's this attention to fine-tuned detail that elevates it way above the usual "ooga-booga" nonsense typical in this genre. A surprisingly swift and engaging movie, which shows step by step what it must've been like to suddenly have this elevated brain within a world populated only by dumb animals, I'm really glad now that I took the time to finally watch this (although I unfortunately can't say the same for Clan of the Cave Bear, but click here for more on that). Strongly recommended for those looking for a smart, unique moviegoing experience.

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