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DVD Review: The Prisoner (2009)

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AMC's six-part mini-series of The Prisoner is a re-imagining of the original cult series from the late '60s, starring Patrick McGoohan. This update features some of the same ideas and constructs, but strikes out on its own paths as well. This remake features Sir Ian McKellen as Two and Jim Caviezel as Six.

The basic premise of the show: A man (Caviezel) wakes up in the desert, confused about how he got there and suffering from what seems to be selective amnesia. He eventually stumbles upon a town, which the inhabitants simply call The Village. People there seem to know who he is – using the name Six, as everyone is simply referred to by their number – and what's more, they all seem to think that The Village is all there is. No other countries, no other cities, governments, ideas or institutions — just The Village. Not only is it all there is, but as Six attempts to leave, he comes to find out that no one is allowed to leave.

The leader of the town, a man named Two (McKellen), is equal parts mayor and plantation owner. He monitors activities from his mansion, makes appearances throughout the town, and develops "programs" to keep the populace content and distracted when problems do come up. But there are people inside the Village, known as dreamers, who keep having memories of other places or other lives. Some are being mysteriously carried off, and the rest learn to keep their visions to themselves. The Village is heavily monitored – with some inhabitants taking up jobs as undercover trackers – and the idyllic facade of the town quickly begins to crumble. As Six tries to free himself from this desert prison, he also tries to unravel the mystery of The Village.

The production of the show is extremely well done, with top-notch acting all around, excellent cinematography, engaging editing and music, and a compelling story. Although some of the mysteries show their hand a bit early, each episode stills holds a high enjoyment factor, and the pacing throughout feels like a long movie divided into logical chunks. McKellen in particular is absolutely perfect as Two, a charming but slimy and manipulative figurehead. Caviezel brings a more plausible and confused "everyman" persona to Six, which is a stark contrast to McGoohan's original, which showed more of a smug James Boned efficiency.

The temptation to compare this new mini-series with the original is both great and expected. But the show itself is neither a remake nor a continuation. It's almost more of an homage, taking some of the basic elements of the earlier show and changing quite a bit more. Whereas the original show dealt with a secret agent who tried to retire and wound up in a resort prison with other similar inhabitants, the new version is a bit more convoluted in the staggered way it reveals our protagonist's past. In this update, Six's memory slowly comes back to him as he begins to piece together what happened directly prior to his arriving in The Village. His past is as much a part of the plot as his present, and the two storylines are tied together throughout, each developing the other.

A basic difference between the two is the length. As a six-part mini-series, this new version of The Prisoner feels direct, neatly structured and tidily resolved at the end. The original, being a true and open-ended series, set up the basic construct of the situation and then episodes presented smaller "challenges" for Six to overcome. In fact, the original felt more like a good idea that was started without a proper grasp on how it should resolve (which, by the admission of its creators, was indeed the case). Because of this there will probably be complaints that this new version reveals and resolves too much, and loses the "open to interpretation" (i.e. utterly baffling) conclusion of the original.

Where the two tread similar ground is in their portrayal of The Village as a surveillance-heavy police state (albeit one you're supposed to really enjoy). The original series was definitely ahead of its time on this issue, preceding the ubiquity of London CCTV cameras everywhere, or even the lack of privacy eventually ushered in by the Internet. This new series, on the other hand, feels all too plausible.

It's disappointing that this new version of The Prisoner is currently only available on DVD, as it was shot in HD (and in fact can be found on video download portals in HD) and contains rather striking visuals. As it is, the DVD version is rather nice looking given its limitations, and is overall a good presentation.

The main letdown with this three-disc set is its altogether uninspiring selection of bonus materials. The main bright spot is in the deleted scenes that accompany each episode. Most are rather interesting inclusions and shed further light on the characters' actions or extend scenes that breezed by in the final cut. There are two utterly dull commentary tracks on the first and last episodes, where the producer and editor either state the obvious or lapse into uncomfortable silence. "Beautiful Prison: The World Of The Prisoner" (16:32) is a more standard behind-the scenes look at producing the series. "A 6-hour Film Shot In 92 Days" (15:25) is a pseudo-diary of production in Namibia and South Africa. "The Prisoner Comic-Con Panel" (11:24) is a surprisingly dull and uninformative panel discussion. "The Man Behind 2" (4:54) is the other bright spot of the bonus items, with the young co-star Jamie Campbell Bower interviewing a relaxed and talkative Sir Ian McKellen.

Hopefully people will not view this new mini-series as intending to be a substitute or replacement for the original series. The original has become a cult favorite for good reason; it was years ahead of its time in terms of intriguing storytelling and use of technology, plus it was just an enthralling set of episodes. This new version feels a bit more "typical" in its modern-day constructs, but it's thoroughly enjoyable, offering an efficiently paced mystery series, superb acting, and excellent production. It's a very suitable and entertaining successor to the original. A very recommended series (both of them).

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