Hayley Atwell, Ruth Wilson, Lennie James, Jamie Campbell Bower
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All photos © AMC
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
ith the successful revival/reinvention of shows like “Doctor Who” and “Battlestar Galactica” in recent years, a reinterpretation of the ‘60s cult phenomenon “The Prisoner” seems like a no-brainer. Indeed, it’s something that had been bandied about for years (long before such projects became the “it” thing to do), so such a development was an inevitability. If you’re a fan of the original – as am I – it’s virtually impossible to sit through this new miniseries version without playing compare and contrast along the way. However, this DVD was my second experience with this mini, and this time around it was somewhat easier to try to forget about the original and take this version on its own merits. The problem is that it isn’t any easier to swallow the heaping mounds of hallucinogenic madness this serves up, even when taking the brilliance of the Patrick McGoohan version out of the equation. Both versions are akin to acid trips, only this new one is, metaphorically speaking, missing all the pretty colors.
A disoriented man (Jim Caviezel) unexpectedly arrives in the middle of a rocky wasteland, only to find another man on the run from armed guards. The second man dies, and the first man trudges through a desert, making his way to a nearby village which is called, well, The Village. It’s seemingly an oasis of life in the midst of nothing, which the residents believe it to be both the beginning and end of life as they know it. It’s a difficult concept to explain, and even more difficult to swallow – for reasons too numerous to list – as the series unveils its ideas in the first episode. The man is told his name is 6 (just as every resident of The Village has a number for a name), and he meets head honcho 2 (Ian McKellen), a mysterious figure who runs the joint. But if life begins and ends in The Village, why does 6 continually remember a life prior to this one? Where does reality begin and where do dreams end? I’ve given you the simplified version of the myriad questions this miniseries proposes. Someone could likely write 10,000 words on this piece, and still find more to say, but about as many people would be interested in reading it as would find this series engaging (i.e. not very many).
Therein resides the real problem with this version of “The Prisoner”: Simply put, it’s boring. It consists of a mere six 45-minute episodes, but feels as if it’s 12 hours long. Time fails to tick away on the DVD player, and you believe you surely must be nearing the end of an episode, only to discover you’re 15 minutes into it – all this despite the fact that there’s always something happening that feels as if it should be intriguing, yet isn’t. It doesn’t help matters that Caviezel is wholly unengaging as the central figure (when he says the famous line “I’m not a number, I’m a free man,” “Prisoner” devotees will be hard-pressed to stifle their laughter), yet I’m not sure he’s to blame for that. Closer inspection reveals that nearly every actor (yes, even Ian McKellen) is sleepwalking through this show. The events in the final episode lead one to believe that this may have been the aim of the filmmakers, but if that’s so, then this can only be considered a conceptual misfire. The original series featured a revolving guest cast of characters who devoured the screen. This one features a small group of individuals who fail to move in any particular direction. McGoohan was driven to get to the bottom of the weirdness; Caviezel barely seems to want to get out of bed in the morning.
It’s not that this ambitious series (which it most certainly is) is entirely without merit. Its greatest triumph is in its decision to ditch the Cold War politics of the original for the dangers of Big Business, making the backbone of the series relevant to a modern audience. The company in question is called Summakor, a massive surveillance corporation from which 6 has apparently resigned. It’s just a shame that the core idea of an insidious Big Brother-type company gets completely lost in the narrative. Further, when the series wants to be its own dog, rather than rely on ideas and iconography from the original, it frequently dances with potential, and yet there’s always the Rover balloon, or some recycled concept from the ‘60s version just waiting to drag it back down, reminding us how unoriginal it really is. The cumbersome execution aside, the show looks fantastic and frequently makes great use of music. One of the great failings on the part of Warner Brothers here in the States was to not give this a Blu-ray release, as it’s getting one in the U.K. No, it wouldn’t help the narrative, but it certainly couldn’t hurt a series whose primary strengths are in its cinematography and sound.
It’s entirely possible that this is the sort of thing that will someday be hailed as a misunderstood masterpiece. Perhaps numerous viewings of it reveal something I was unable to locate during my two attempts. On the other hand, maybe the producers just simply got this wrong, and somebody else needs to have a go at reimagining the source material. On the other other hand, maybe creative types would do best to just leave “The Prisoner” alone, as not every great concept needs to be remade.
Special Features: There are two dryly uninteresting audio commentaries (on the first and last episodes) featuring the producer and the editor. Where’s director Nick Hurran and writer Bill Gallagher? Probably too embarrassed to be anywhere near such a commentary. Something tells me this series had some big post-production snafus, and arguments over which direction the final edit should take, which would explain the missing key talent here (or course this is mere supposition on my part, and wasn’t gleaned from anything said on this set). The third disc is devoted entirely to featurettes: “Beautiful Prison: The World of the Prisoner,” “A 6-Hour Film Shot in 92 Days: The Diary of the Prisoner,” “The Prisoner Comic-Con Panel,” and “The Man Behind ‘2’” an interview with McKellen conducted by Jamie Campbell Bower, who plays McKellen’s son, 11-12, in the mini.