Apr 8, 2010

DVD Review: The Prisoner (2009)

After re-watching the 2009 AMC miniseries remake of The Prisoner on DVD, I’m afraid I haven’t changed my opinion of the show from when I reviewed it when it was on TV. It’s simply not very good. (Since my opinion hasn’t changed, I won’t waste time repeating what I said before; instead this DVD review will serve as a companion piece to what I originally wrote.) That said, there’s something compelling about its very existence, and I’m glad to have it on DVD. Is that a contradiction? Yes. In no way am I recommending this poorly reimagined version of the classic series over the original. But for fans of the original series, I think there is something interesting–instructive, even–to be found in the failure of the remake. The mere concept of the show (a man awakens a prisoner in a mysterious village called “The Village” where everyone is known by numbers, and butts heads with its authority figures) holds up well, as do its themes, and I feel that this experiment has proven that other interpretations are at least possible. After this meretricious failure, I would be more open to seeing other, future versions. (Most of all, I’d like to see that Christopher Nolan film version that was announced years ago but never came to fruition.)

The 2009 Prisoner is not without its pleasing qualities. The look of the series is fantastic–and that extends to the DVD presentation: both the transfer (which is beautiful; I wish it were available on Blu-ray) and the packaging. This is an attractive DVD. It’s a three-disc flipper case, the width of a regular DVD, inside a glossy slipcase. Slipcase and DVD case are both very slickly designed, with nifty, eye-catching graphics and a good layout. Even the discs themselves, emblazoned with the iconic new Village logo, are handsome. Unfortunately, what’s actually on them doesn’t live up to the presentation. You see where I’m going with this? It’s not merely one of my “book-by-its-cover” commentaries on packaging, but a commentary on the show itself. It’s just like the case: all show; beautiful to look at but utterly lacking in substance. The cardinal sin of this new version, conceived by writer Bill Gallagher, producer Trevor Hopkins and director Nick Hurran, is the smugness it wears on its sleeve. It believes itself to be groundbreaking, thought-provoking, Important Television (all terms that can be legitimately applied to its forbear), but it simply isn’t. This is borne out in the happily copious special features; again and again the actors and creative talent talk about how “it’s so clever.” (Yes, that’s an actual quote–from actor Jamie Campbell Bower–but the sentiment is clearly shared and stated again and again only slightly less explicitly by everyone else.) It’s as if everyone involved believed that being inscrutable is the same as being profound.

“What they are and what they represent is kind of up to interpretation, really,” says Hopkins (or possibly editor Yan Morris; it’s hard to distinguish their voices) on one commentary track, speaking about these mysterious, unreachable twin towers that overlook the Village. “Maybe not being so coherent, I think, so soon, I think allows the audience or lets the audience feel slighly, um... slightly cheated, and uncomfortable, but exactly how our leading man feels,” chimes in the editor. Well, he’s right. It’s just not really a good thing, like he seems to think it is. Consider Hopkins’ assessment of Two, played by Ian McKellen: “In the last analysis, I am still not sure who he is as a person.” Well, that’s a bit of a problem!

“What is it about?” asks Gallagher reflexively in one of the featurettes. “It’s about whatever you think it’s about.” And that’s the problem. At some point, someone involved should have decided that the series needed to be about something, and not about what you think it’s about. There’s nothing wrong with being open to interpretation (the original series certainly is), but, frankly, a series has to be worth interpreting if that’s what you’re going for. This version of The Prisoner builds mysteries and poses questions with such wild abandon that the answers, when they come, should have been a little more original. If the intention was to be as thought-provoking as everyone involved seems to think it is, then you can’t fall back on a trite resolution as old as the medium itself. I’m sorry to be as oblique as the series, but I can’t bring myself to spoil even a bad ending.

The structure follows the Prisoner’s life in the Village intercut with scenes of his previous life in New York. “They’re actually not flashbacks and they’re not flash forwards,” Morris points out. Maybe not, but the clear effect of anything of the sort in this era is to evoke Lost–and that show (while still unresolved) handles its mysteries and its parallel storylines much more competently. It’s a bit sad when a remake of the seminal head-scratching TV puzzle fails to live up to other series it inspired.

As I said, Warner’s DVD of The Prisoner offers a lot of special features–a lot of tools for curious Prisoner scholars to evaluate what went wrong. The commentaries I’ve been quoting from–on the first and last episodes, both featuring only Hopkins and Morris–do make for interesting listening, even if they don’t provide any amazing insights that will change your whole opinion of the show. Besides commenting on its oblique nature, the two provide some interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits on the production of the series, including the challenges and benefits of shooting both the Village and New York City in South Africa. They also like to point out all the homages to the original series (and I’ll grant, those are fun), like the arch and the lava lamp in 93's apartment and a large chessboard that despite their assurances of its existence, I have yet to spot myself. They also confirm that the character of 93, an old man dressed like McGoohan’s Prisoner is indeed supposed to be the original Number 6, an assertion that makes no sense whatsoever in the context of the original series or this one, especially given that the two Prisoners are clearly set in entirely different worlds.

Morris mentions that the hardest challenge of making a new Prisoner was not having their hands tied by the McGoohan series, and being free to treat the material their own way despite knowing how many fans the original has. Well, that’s fine with me. I think they actually took the right tack there; a remake should not be slavish to its progenitor; otherwise there’s no reason for its existence. No, my problem with the remake isn’t that it has the guts to go its own direction; it’s that it picks, frankly, a pretty stupid direction! (And that blame lies with Gallagher, not with Morris.)

Each episode is accompanied by non-anamorphic deleted scenes, accessed by a scissors icon on the menu screen. (The menus screens maintain the impressive visual design of these discs established with the packaging.) There’s nothing integral to the story or of particular interest to fans of the original series among the excised bits, but they’re certainly still worth watching if you’re invested enough in the series to possess the DVD. There’s a kind of nifty little motorbike chase that was cut from the first episode, “Arrival,” and a few more scenes with the shopkeeper character, who is one of the miniseries’ highlights.

I was hugely disappointed by the featurette “Beautiful Prison: The World of The Prisoner,” because from its title I expected it to be about art direction and designing (literally) the “world of The Prisoner.” It is not. Instead it’s one of those EPK-style featurettes where the actors and a few members of the production team more or less narrate the story of the show, and various Talking Heads offer more enigmatic little homilies like “I think there’s something for everyone in The Prisoner and I think it’s a little bit of a mind game,”that one coming from executive producer Michelle Buck.

Much more enlightening is a second featurette (they each run about fifteen minutes), “A 6-Hour Film Shot in 92 Days: The Diary of The Prisoner.” We still don’t get any mind-blowing insights into why Gallagher made the choices he did (in fact, Gallagher and Hurran are conspicuously absent from most of the special features, save for the Comic-Con panel), but we do get lots of cool behind-the-scenes info on the making of the series. In this documentary, we do hear from Production Designer Michael Pickwoad, and he looks exactly how you’d hope he’d look, wearing a white linen suit and a pink bowtie In my favorite segment, he and other production personnel discuss the actual South African village that became the Village. I think its this show’s greatest achievement that they managed to create a Village every bit as unique and surreal as the iconic Welsh seaside community of Portmeiron (the original Village), yet completely different and utterly original. And once more, as with Portmeiron, they discovered an amazing place that actually exists to form the basis of this new Village! In this case, it’s a resort community of identicay pink A-frames built in the middle of the desert for German tourists. The new Village is cool, and I’m happy to own this series on DVD just to be able to dip back into it from time to time.

An interview with Ian McKellen and clips of the Prisoner Panel from the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con round out the special features. The interview, “The Man Behind ‘2,’” is pure filler with no real substance. Actor Jamie Campbell Bower, who plays Two’s son, interviews his TV dad (intercut with some behind-the-scenes B-roll) and they talk about things like Sir Ian’s trailer and engage in an extended discussion about various euphemisms for “bathroom” (Sir Ian prefers “WC”) instead of discussing The Prisoner. The twelve-minute cut-down of the Comic-Con panel (which originally ran just short of an hour, including footage presentations) is much more rewarding. Several actors are present, as well as Gallagher. Caviezel reveals that he never watched the original series because “I never want to be accused of trying to copy anybody, especially Patrick McGoohan,” and Gallagher relates an entertaining story about his conversation with McGoohan just prior to the actor’s death. Caviezel also fails miserably at an Ian McKellen impression. This being Comic-Con (a forum for fans to interact with stars), the tone of the discussion is kept pretty light, and since it occurred before the series aired, the panelists steer clear of spoilers. I was at this panel last summer, and it was good enough to turn me from being apprehensive about the remake to genuinely excited. If only the show had lived up to its Comic-Con presentation!

The 2009 version of The Prisoner is a failure, but an ambitious one and one worthy of study for fans of the original. Obviously, my opinion of the show itself isn’t very positive, but as I admitted up front, I’m actually glad to own the DVD. I can see myself revisiting it in the future just to savor the lush production design and cinematography. This DVD isn’t for people who haven’t seen the original, but die-hard Prisoner fans should find plenty of interest here, if not anything approaching the quality of the original series. I think it’s pretty cool that someone took a crack at remaking The Prisoner, and I hope it’s not the last attempt.

2 comments:

Elliot James said...

A huge waste of money, above all. The "old number 6" scene in the opener was no baton-pass if that was the intent.

Tanner said...

Yeah, the attempt to put the two series in the same universe was lucicrous, as subsequent events made it abundantly clear that they were not. While the endeavor proved a failure, I don't see it as a waste of money. As I said above, I think it was an interesting experiment, at the very least. Pity it didn't pan out. If only they'd checked themselves at the script stage instead of all being so certain it was brilliant simply because it was oblique!