If you’re planning to watch “The Prisoner” on AMC starting Sunday, you should also plan not to know quite what’s happening for much of its running time.
That’s part of the point — a remake of the famously inscrutable 1960s series could hardly call itself “The Prisoner” if it weren’t heavily invested in messing with your mind. But while the six-hour miniseries eventually comes to something of a coherent point — about the nature of freedom in a world where our every move can be monitored — it takes a good many bewildering detours along the way.
But if “What the hell is going on?” is not enough to sustain your interest over the full six hours, and you’re not into making detailed comparisons between the new effort and its predecessor, then you might be out of luck. The new “Prisoner” boasts some spectacular production design and a devilishly good performance from Ian McKellen, but that wasn’t enough to keep my focus from wandering at times.
The miniseries isn’t a faithful remake of Patrick McGoohan’s original, but that’s not a bad thing. “The Prisoner” of the 1960s has its rightful place in TV’s pantheon, but with its Cold War paranoia, deep distrust of the counterculture and James Bond-meets-Salvador Dali production design, it’s also very much of its time. The new version’s writer, Bill Gallagher, director Nick Hunnam and the production team made a smart choice in not trying simply to replicate the old show.
The framework, however, remains the same: After resigning from his post at a security firm, a man (Jim Caviezel) wakes up outside the Village (most of the miniseries was filmed at a resort in Namibia) with no clue as to how he arrived or what he’s doing there. Everyone in the Village goes by a number rather than a name — the newcomer is christened Six — no one seems to think there’s any world outside the Village, and they’re all in the thrall (and under the thumb) of Two (McKellen), the man in charge.
Unlike seemingly everyone else there, though, Six refuses to accept his fate. He still has flashes of his former life and vows to escape, using shimmering visions of two towers (unquestionably meant to evoke the World Trade Center) on the horizon as his beacon.
The story puts Caviezel in a bit of a quandary. His Six isn’t nearly as fiery as McGoohan’s was — alternately bewildered, defiant and resigned, he’s a little bit like Neo in “The Matrix” before he takes the red pill: a bit of a blank slate who absorbs things that happen to him rather than making things happen himself.
McKellen gets the far meatier role as Two, the Village’s semi-benevolent despot. He’s a fully rounded character with a wife (Rachael Blake) and son (“Twilight: New Moon’s” Jamie Campbell Bower) who, we eventually learn, has very personal reasons for wanting to preserve the Village as it is and knows the threat that a relatively free mind like Six’s can pose.
McKellen also brings out the best in Caviezel; their scenes together have a snap to them that Six’s other interactions — with cabdriver 147 (Lennie James, “Jericho”), Village doctor 313 (Ruth Wilson) and a woman from his prior life (Hayley Atwell) — don’t.
One of the smart choices Gallagher makes is to show us glimpses of Six’s former life, where he worked for a company that monitors spy-camera footage from around the world. It’s presented in such a way as to make the viewer wonder (along with Six) which place is really real.
Six’s old life and the Village eventually come together in a way that speaks to both the way privacy has eroded in the 21st century and the notion that broken people should be fixed, even if they don’t want to be. Inasmuch as a story like this can have a definite endpoint, this “Prisoner” has one. Whether that will please die-hard fans of the original is up for debate, but again, it’s probably a wise choice not to ape the controversial ending of the ’60s show.
As a meditation on how free our free will really is, “The Prisoner” works quite well. I just wish it had dispensed with a few of the trippy head-fakes along the way.
“The Prisoner” premieres at 8 p.m. ET Sunday on AMC with parts one and two. Parts three and four air at 8 p.m. Monday, and the conclusion airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
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