As anyone who’s watched an episode of Survivor will know, life in the great outdoors really sucks if you don’t have a decent fire for warming your bones and cooking your evening dinner. According to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire (1981), now out on Blu-ray, this was a truth equally evident to prehistoric man 80,000 years ago. But unfortunately for those guys, they had yet to learn how to get a good blaze going for themselves, and they were reliant on rare natural occurrences such as lightning strikes for a few flaming brands which they would lovingly tend.
The film’s hairy protagonists are a peaceful tribe who, at the start, are lucky enough to be sitting pretty around a big, well-maintained fire. Disastrously, this attracts the envy of a gang of aggressive, club-wielding hominids, who chase them off after a violent siege. Miserable and bereft, the survivors set up camp in the middle of a swamp. The tiny bit of flame they were able to preserve – kept in a portable shrine of bones and hide – fizzles out, and a trio of warriors are obliged to set off in search of a new source of the precious, life-giving element. It’s a journey that sees them bothered by sabre-tooths, befriended by woolly mammoths and potentially ending up on the menu of some surly, ginger-haired cannibals.
One thing you notice immediately about Quest for Fire is its seriousness of intent. This is no Ray Harryhausen rubbersaurus fest; rather, with Desmond Morris of Naked Ape fame advising on behaviour and novelist and amateur linguist Anthony Burgess inventing primitive languages for the cast to speak, it’s a credible attempt to recreate the past. Almost too much so in fact. Early scenes in which the actors groom each other and break rocks while communicating in grunts make you wonder if you’re in for a piece of over-earnest, Pompidou Centre-style French artiness.
Stick with it, though, and it soon grows into something more. The story is simple but engaging, and the central trio develop distinct personalities – there’s a geeky one, an uncouth one and the leader, Noah, the most thoughtful of the bunch. There are moments of humour, terror and awe, and romance too, as Noah encounters a girl from another tribe (a remarkably graceful and convincing performance by Rae Dawn Chong) who teaches him that there is more to life that a warm fire and a nice bit of flint. Throughout, the ensemble acting is impressively selfless and committed, and all in all this a beautiful and quite unique film that makes you feel rather teary-eyed to be human.
Turning now to the wonderful world of anime, we welcome back the classic Last Exile. This sprawling 26-episode series originally aired in 2003, and it now returns in a bargain 7-disc box set for its tenth anniversary. Set on a planet with dwindling resources, it concerns two young aerial couriers, Claus and Lavie, who earn a crust by delivering messages in somewhat perilous circumstances, flying a speedy lightweight aircraft known as a vanship. Over the course of the series, the duo find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into the ongoing war between the planet’s two great nations, Anatory and Disith – a struggle being umpired and manipulated by a technologically superior third party, the Guild.
Ten years on, Last Exile shows its age in several respects. It’s narrative chassis now feels a bit wonky, with some fumbling of story arcs and a proliferation of loose ends, and the two leads suffer from broad-strokes characterisation, especially Claus, a stereotype of plucky courage under fire who makes Biggles seem like a hopeless sissy. But it remains a totally enthralling series nonetheless, thanks to its wildly ambitious scale and its parade of speed races, dogfights and aerial battles featuring fleets of airborne dreadnoughts. The visuals (which employ what was then a cutting-edge blend of 3D CGI and 2D cel-shaded animation) stand up well, packed as they are with imaginative steampunk elements (steam-powered muskets, anyone?), and Claus is given a cutely shaggy-haired, ’70s children’s book look which compensates in some measure for his lack of personality. In terms of mood and aesthetic, Last Exile‘s touchstone is Studio Ghibli’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and if you relish that high-spirited masterpiece, then you’ll enjoy this too.
We’re still in the skies but this time it’s a bird, not a plane, which occupies centre stage in Bird of Prey (Damnation Books), a novella by David Murphy. An old lady convinces meek auctioneer Walts Walters to sell an unremarkable-looking crystal bird. Initially reluctant, he soon becomes fascinated by this mystery antique, and with good reason, as it holds the key to the firebird folk tale, the future of the Russian nation and possibly much more.
Murphy packs a lot into a slim 86 pages. Beginning in the seedy milieu of a London auction house, the story then takes to the road as Walts abandons his day job to go on a quest of discovery that sees him landing up in Moscow. In the meantime, various intelligence agencies are getting in on the action and sending goons in pursuit. These rapid changes of scene give Bird of Prey a brisk, cinematic quality (I can’t help thinking what an excellent graphic novel it would make), but at the same time it retains plenty of grit thanks to the author’s eye for descriptive detail, and there’s a satisfaction to the way the tale goes from small and humdrum to earth-shattering and potentially cataclysmic. Cramming such an involved plot into such a compact form inevitably leads to a few question marks being left dangling (in particular, Walts’ obsession with the bird feels a little lacking in groundwork), but still, this in a pleasingly individual piece of fiction and a welcome rebirth for the firebird legend.
Now from up in the blue beyond to deep underwater. Personally I can never get enough of ocean-centric SF (the Marine Boy theme tune is playing in my head even as I type), so I was excited to come across Brian Burt’s Aquarius Rising (Double Dragon Publishing), the first in his The Tears of God (or should that be Cod?) series. In the future, global warming has rendered the Earth’s surface all but uninhabitable, but humanity still thrives in various new hybrid forms as the result of a mutagenic virus created by a scientist called Cydon. The Aquarians are one such hybrid, graceful dolphin-like humanoids who live on the bottom of the oceans in beautiful reef colonies.
When the novel begins, these reef colonies are coming under devastating attack from the Redeemers, “normal” humans who want destroy Cydon’s work and roll back the clock to a one-look, pink-skinned mankind. Standing in their way is Ocypode, a genetic sport who is halfway between a human and an Aquarian. Clumsy and ugly, he is a near outcast in his own tribe, but he has the brains to help the water-dwellers evade danger and regroup.
For those who enjoy the simple pleasures of an adventure story, Aquarius Rising can be warmly recommended. Burt does a good job of balancing action, exposition and scene-setting to create a highly colourful page-turner, full of the vivid hues and unfamiliar sights of its aquatic world and galvanised by regular tail-breadth escapes and fishy ruckuses. He also opens up the narrative in interesting ways, bringing in other hybrids such as the pillagy and rapey Saurians and the cautious, well-organized part-rodent Talpidians. Given how shabbily they treat Ocypode, chances are you won’t be too fussed about whether or not the Aquarians survive, but even so this is a hard book to put down, and it should certainly appeal to teen readers with a taste for SF.