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Case Number 18572

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The Prisoner (2009)

Warner Bros. // 2009 // 288 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // March 23rd, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Mike Rubino's number is 867-5309.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of The Prisoner (published July 16th, 2004), The Prisoner: Complete Series Megaset (40th Anniversary Edition) (published August 9th, 2006), The Prisoner Set 1 (published December 11th, 2000), The Prisoner Set 2 (published March 24th, 2001), and The Prisoner: The Complete Series (Blu-Ray) (published November 11th, 2009) are also available.

The Charge

You only think you're free.

Opening Statement

The original Prisoner is a gem in the crowded genre of '60s spy shows. It was a stylish, high-concept series about an individual's struggle against collectivism; it's stood the test of time, and has remained popular thanks to a rabid cult following and plenty of re-runs and DVD releases.

AMC's big budget re-imagining isn't so much a child of the original as it is a loud, obnoxious cousin.

Facts of the Case

Michael (Jim Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ) resigns from his job as an analyst for a mysterious corporation, Summakor. Next thing Mike knows, he's in a desert just outside "The Village," an isolated, utopian society where names are reduced to numbers and everyone follows the orders of the supreme leader, 2 (Sir Ian McKellen, X-Men).

Michael's known as "6." He has no idea how he got there, but everyone's treating him as if he never left; 6 has a loving brother, a job driving a tour bus, and a batch of childhood memories as a villager. Was his life in New York even real? Throughout the mini-series he tries desperately to uncover the truth about who and where he really is…and avoid the wrath of Rover, the giant floating orb.

The Evidence

The Prisoner is a mess of rapid-fire editing, fuzzy lens techniques, and even fuzzier ideas. This AMC re-imagining trades in the smart inventiveness of its source material for a stylish presentation with little under the hood. It's the modded Chevy Cobalt of TV remakes. The six-part mini-series may be distinctly different from the Patrick McGoohan series—and that's perfectly fine—but it isn't nearly as interesting or rewarding.

The Prisoner attempts to accomplish in six episodes what the original did in 17; namely, a protagonist that we root for, and a suspenseful mystery surrounding the origins of The Village. These six installments feel rushed and disconnected, never giving the audience a real reason to care about Michael/6. Caviezel, who does a great job with what he's given, suffers from the same syndrome as Mark Wahlberg's character in the Planet of the Apes remake: he just wants to go home. That's about as deep as the character gets, despite his various personality shifts and changes.

When 6 isn't spending his time clawing through the desert or trying to convince blank-faced villagers that they're "dreamers," he's getting involved in various jobs or challenges put upon him by 2, the oddly accessible leader of The Village. 6 spends an episode working as part of an undercover police force; later on he battles his doppleganger. He even tries to get married. Amidst all of this, the viewer is bombarded with flashbacks of a parallel storyline involving Michael meeting a mystery woman (Hayley Atwell, Cassandra's Dream) in New York City. His attitude and moral compass is almost contradictory between the two storylines, and while that may be intentional it doesn't make him any more sympathetic or likable as a hero.

Part of the problem is 2's over-exposure; he gets almost as much screen time as 6 but is far more developed as a character (this is partially because he doesn't have to spend a lot of time denying his own life). We meet his son, 11-12 (Jamie Campbell Bower) and his comatose wife, M2 (Rachael Blake), whose presence only enhances 2's enjoyable villainy. McKellen really chews the scenery with his over-the-top performance, and it works to a large extent. He's a solid foil for 6.

The mini-series boils down to a cat-and-mouse game between the two, but because they debunk any existence of a "Number 1," 2 never gets the boot. Instead, these guys, along with a number of moody supporting characters, must face off until the bitter (and confusing) end. The show's resolution arrives with only a modicum of surprises, and isn't the least bit dramatically rewarding. It's disappointingly straightforward.

The Prisoner feels like it has a lot to say. You get that from its constant editing tricks and insert shots of empty symbolism; it makes you feel like you're missing something. You want a random casket filled with oranges? Here you go. How about a tunnel filled with sick folks? There's so much going on, and yet I never felt compelled to dive into it. There are messages about post-9/11 America (hence two giant, ghostly towers standing on the outskirts of The Village), totalitarianism, and government surveillance, but it all feels so rote. They're saying something about standing up for yourself…or being yourself…or not working for a shady company…or that we're all being watched. I don't know. Its presentation is pretentious and heavy without being all that engaging.

If the editing and writing leave something to be desired, the show's production values at least come across as cinematic. The acting is solid all around, especially from the supporting cast which includes Hayley Atwell, Ruth Wilson, and Lennie James. And the film's visual style, a mix between the original's British aesthetic and some great photography of the Namib Desert, is fit for the big screen. I especially enjoyed the retro decor of the village (much of which was found in South Africa), as well as the iconic Rover. You don't get to see that creepy sphere often, but it always shows up at just the right time. The DVD transfer is suitably impressive, with bold colors and well-balanced Dolby sound—but some of those cover songs used in the soundtrack are a tad hokey.

The six-parter is spread across two discs, with each episode accompanied by a handful of deleted scenes. The unaired footage is interesting, but you don't have the option to insert it back into the episodes. There's also commentary tracks for the first and last episodes, which offer some casual insights into the series but are about as dry as the desert surrounding The Village.

The set's third disc contains some brief supplemental materials in the form of behind-the-scenes featurettes and interviews. A 6-Hour Film Shot in 92 Days is a production diary chronicling the film's intense shooting schedule in Namibia and South Africa. Beautiful Prison is about the show's design and writer Bill Gallagher's vision for the new series. The Man Behind "2" is a fairly entertaining interview with Sir Ian McKellen. Lastly, there's a brief video of the cast's panel at the San Diego Comic-Con. It's not a bad selection of stuff, but I found way more interesting supplements on the AMC website for the show. This third disc feels like a wasted opportunity.

Closing Statement

I had high hopes for The Prisoner. It has a great cast, a decent budget, and a cool shot of that darn Rover on the packaging. It's not an engaging, modern take on the classic spy show; instead, it's an overly-complex, pretentious exercise in editing techniques. As a series, it would have had the breathing room to build momentum and develop into something. As it is, it's a 6-hour film that's lost in the dunes.

The Verdict

Guilty. All these numbers just don't add up!

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Scales of Justice

Video: 94
Audio: 90
Extras: 80
Acting: 91
Story: 75
Judgment: 78

Perp Profile

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English (SDH)
• French
Running Time: 288 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Drama
• Espionage
• Science Fiction
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentaries
• Deleted Scenes
• Featurettes
• Interview


• IMDb
• Official Site

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