DVD Review Of The Quiet Earth
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/7/08
The 1985 sci fi film from New Zealand, The Quiet Earth, is one of the best of the ‘Last Man/Woman On Earth’ apocalyptic films. That said, since that is a sub-subgenre of film (subgenre being Apocalyptic films in the genre sci fi), it’s merely a good film overall, for it progressively gets weaker as it goes on, as do all films in that vein. Like most films in this sub-subgenre, it falls prey to tropes that undermine it- the first being the predictability of sexual or racial conflict (two for two), and the second being following the Dumbest Possible Action, wherein characters do really dumb things no one would do in real life, just so the film can move along.
Of course, some slack must be given to films like this re: their scientific explanations for the depopulation of the world. In this film, it is ascribed to a Project Flashlight that the New Zealand government was working on in concert with the United States of America. It seems that a worldwide power grid was to be established via airplanes or satellites (it’s never made clear- as it should be, lest the science bog down in irreality) and something goes wrong at 6:12 am, New Zealand time. The universe changes to the point that only those people who were near death at ‘the effect’ survive. The rest all vanish- save a few corpses who were likewise near death, then died slowly afterwards. Perhaps it was a quantum shift in reality, but it’s clearly a stand-in for nuclear power- something that New Zealand banned around the time of the film. A thin vein of Anti-American Big Brotherism thus hangs over the film.
Nevertheless, the sun is now starting to oscillate, and Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence), the lead of the film- a scientist who was committing suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, at a motel, is left alone for the first 37 minutes of the 91 minute film. At first he starts exploring the New Zealand countryside, and the capital city of Auckland. Later, as loneliness impinges, he slowly starts to lose his mind, as he descends into madness, transvestism, and delusions of grandeur- even putting up cardboard figurines of world leaders and celebrities like the Pope, Adolf Hitler, Queen Elizabeth, Bob Marley, Alfred Hitchcock, and Richard Nixon and lecturing to them in the evening, from the balcony of a swank home he’s moved into. He starts the film as a lonely man, and even comes close to suicide, until he meets red-headed Joanne (Alison Routledge)- 36 minutes into the film, at the second swank home he moves into. Naturally, they slowly bond and become sexually involved. Then, a third person shows up, 54 minutes into the film: Api (Peter Smith), a militant Maori with an attitude problem. As the trio puts their heads together to figure out what happened, Api tells Joanne he killed his mate’s wife because it ‘was necessary.’ Whether true or not, or just to impress the girl, it works, and it does gibe with his claim of his mate’s attempt to kill him by drowning, when ‘the effect’ took place. Joanne survived when an electrical short in a kitchen appliance seemingly killed her.
Naturally, the black and white man spar over power and the girl- who prefers the more macho Maori, and they resolve that the only way to right the universe is to blow up the grid that Zac controls from the satellite station he worked at. As Api and Joanne do the nasty, the already discarded by Joanne Zac plows a truck full of explosives down into the station, ignite sit, and seemingly ends up on another world, on a beach where a Saturn-like planet rises over the waves- even though we can clearly see that the matte painting of the planet, framed by seeming mushroom clouds, is not bright enough to cause the sunrise over the water.
It’s a weak end that is a copout- attempting to be enigmatic in the way 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Starchild was. The problem is that the film before the end is not in a league with the Kubrick film, and the ending- both narratively and technically, is not in a league with 2001’s mindblowing last fifteen minutes. The matte painting of a ringed planet- a direct steal from the Chesley Bonestell inspired matte paintings of Forbidden Planet, three decades earlier, simply falls flat, and does not look real for a moment. And, as stated, scientifically, none of this makes sense, unless one wants to take the whole film as Zac’s last dream moments of life after he attempts suicide. Yet, wherever he is- dead or alive, in this or a parallel cosmos, he’s now even aloner than when the film started, or when he was seemingly the last man on Earth.
The screenplay is at its best with Zac alone. It is there where it is- bar none, the best Apocalyptic film ever made. The scene of Zac in a silk negligee, admiring himself in a mirror his fingers touch from a distance, is a great foray into who the character is- especially given how quickly and totally sexually kowed and humiliated he is by Joanne and Api’s obvious sexual hots for each other. The screenplay was written by the film’s producer- Sam Pillsbury, and Bill Baer, along with Lawrence, and was directed by Geoff Murphy (Freejack). The cinematography by James Bartle is good, but at its best when at odd angles to present Zac in his delusions and to cover up real signs of life. But, it is the musical score by John Charles, from the first moments of the film through the last, which are the reason this film is memorable, and was one of the most financially successful New Zealand made films up to its time. It is as apt as any score for any film, and even makes the cheesy matte painting ending seem wondrous- if but for a moment. Lawrence gives the best performance, and even bears his genitalia and pubic hair in a couple of naked shots. Routledge is ok, and has one bare-assed scene with Lawrence, and a topless scene with Smith, but her character is so scatter-brained that one cannot really connect tio her as a human being. Smith’s is the least defined character- the New Zealand equivalent of a Black Panther; yet void of any real depth. One can understand his plight as a black man in white society, but not the character of Api in his situation. This disconnect makes Api more of a grunting stereotype than a real character. Thankfully, though, unlike many other Armageddon tales, there are no monsters nor aliens to contend with, save for those monsters within themselves.
The DVD of the film is by Anchor Bay Entertainment, in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Its only features are an eight page insert booklet with some liner notes on the film, its genre, and Lawrence’s early death in the 1990s. There is a theatrical trailer, and quite a good commentary by co-writer/producer Pillsbury, whose affection for the film and actors comes through, even as he bemoans its shortcomings; a true rarity in DVD commentaries where nearly every participant gets critically fellated. Pillsbury details the fact that it’s much easier to empty places of people than to fill them, as in costume dramas. Auckland, on a Sunday morning, is often depopulated, and that’s when most of the shooting was done, for New Zealanders take their weekends seriously. He also details differences between the film and the 1981 novel, The Quiet Earth, by Craig Harrison, and gives insights on pre-CGI technical things like having to pan the opening shot of the sunrise because the sun always rises at an angle, or shooting some effects through water in a glass bowl to get the wavy effects that happen when the effect hits. But, the most interesting jaunt he takes is when he details how a government tax break for films allowed The Quiet Earth to be finances, and his own ethical dilemmas over having the government de facto subsidize his work. The disk also comes in a bluish metallic DVD case- the cost of which should have been applied to more extras and a regular plastic case, instead.
The film owes much to prior Last Man films- such as the obligatory scenes of a shopping spree at a shopping mall (Dawn Of The Dead), the scenes in the church (The Last Man On Earth), sexual tensions between two men over the last woman (The Last Woman On Earth), racial tensions (The World, The Flesh, And The Devil), political brinksmanship backfiring (On The Beach), the Earth changed, but still the Earth (Planet Of The Apes), and there are also some great scenes unique to it- such as an airplane that seemingly fell from the sky and crashed into a building. But, the Dumbest Possible Action tropes- such as Api almost killing Zac in a car chase, or Zac simply not telling Api of Project Flashlight, and their shared assumptions that they alone are the survivors, is simply untenable- even if one suspends much disbelief. After all, if there are at least three survivors in Auckland alone, there would likely be dozens in New Zealand, and several thousand around the world- more than enough to repopulate the world; and worth seeking out. This is yet another unredeemed cliché of the Last Man genre.
Yet, despite all its flaws, I like this film more than I should, in relation to its artistic quality; possibly because in its flaws are the possibilities of what might have been a great sci fi film, in the hands of a better director with a better screenplay. As it is, though, The Quiet Earth is merely a satisfactory entry in the Last Man On Earth sub-subgenre. But, in a medium where even mere satisfaction is so rare, why complain too much?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unlikely 2.0 website.]
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