The Quiet Earth
by Geoff Murphy (Dir.)
Review by Rogan Marshall
Anchor Bay DVD ISBN/ITEM#: B000EZ908Y
Date: 13 June, 2006 List Price $24.98 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Cast: Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge
Scientist Zac Hobson (a fine performance by the late Bruno Lawrence, who also contributed to the screenplay) awakens one morning (having, we will learn much later in the movie, attempted suicide, in a crisis of conscience) to find that he is apparently the last man on earth. Overnight, every living thing has vanished mysteriously; this, we are led to conclude, happened when Project Flashlight, Zac's American employers, switched on an experimental worldwide energy grid. Believing himself to be suffering for his sins as a scientist, Zac gradually descends into madness… until he meets the last woman on earth (Alison Routledge). While helping her indulge a desperate need to search for other survivors, Zac conducts a series of experiments, and concludes that not only has the "effect" left reality unstable on the atomic level – but the "effect" will soon occur again…
Like almost all the "down under" cinema of the eighties, The Quiet Earth has aged gracefully, due to careful detailed production, and enormously rich, fluid camerawork (an approach to visual style that has since become the mainstream norm worldwide). I was lucky enough to catch this moody little magic trick of a movie on the big screen when it came out – I saw it twice, as a matter of fact, which, of course, is about as high a compliment as I can pay, especially considering that The Quiet Earth only enjoyed about four screenings before it got sent home to New Zealand. A lot of fine movies from "down under" got released here in the mid eighties, enough so that many were criminally overlooked by American audiences and critics (other misplaced masterpieces Australian and New Zealandish from that era that still rank at my house are the period caper comedy Came a Hot Friday, and the surrealist epic Bliss).
Those of us who were paying close attention learned that the phantasmagorical quality of the natural light in that corner of the world was not something a few fine filmmakers imposed on the landscape in the seventies (I'm thinking of Roeg and Weir, specifically Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock, respectively), but an intrinsic quality, that graces all film exposed there. Everyone knows this now, as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings pictures recently and notoriously used this otherworldly light to help evoke a literal fantastic landscape; however, The Quiet Earth was (as far as I know) the first genre film to directly use the ambient light in New Zealand as a story element: its hero endlessly wanders abandoned cityscapes, all touched by this subtly garish superlunary palette, heavily, ominously emphasizing the color blue, which, we eventually learn, signifies a shift in the structure of space/time.
This movie is largely limited in its appeal to serious science fiction fans, not just by its cool, but advanced, use of science, or its emphasis on how story affects character, rather than the inverse, but mostly for its will to leave a lot unexplained, for as long as possible; The Quiet Earth is darkly coy, about not only what has happened, what it signifies, and what is to come, but also its characters, their off screen actions and unspoken motivations. Its sense of how to maintain the narrative tension caused by unexplained elements both SF and "human," and also of how to keep us fascinated by them and engaged in their unraveling, is remarkable. It's hard to give any examples, without potentially damaging the movie, for new viewers; in fact, The Quiet Earth is so carefully structured toward the goal of delaying for as long as possible any explanation of its disturbing handful of mysteries, that it's hard to discuss at all, without giving anything important away.
Suffice to say, the writing is careful, stark and polished (the screenplay, by Bill Baer with collaborators, is from a novel by Craig Harrison, and you're way ahead of me, if you've read it); the director (Geoff Murphy, who later signed the also-forgotten Robert Sheckley adaptation Freejack) and the cast keep up admirably, crafting atmosphere that seethes with both menace and wonder. The "Chinese puzzle" of a story sometimes recalls Rod Serling (without the excess dialogue), or Michael Crichton (if you tilt his emphasis toward the character driven), and it finishes itself off with one of the most powerful "trick" endings that has ever graced a science fiction picture. No kidding: this is the kind of movie that, when you meet someone you know is going to like it, and you realize you can't tell them much about why, you'll find yourself doing a little dance, and ranting about the surprise ending, in the vague but passionate terms normally reserved for religious or political rhetoric. Something about that last shot, that unbelievable, jaw-dropping last shot, launches the imagination like a catapult. "Haunting" isn't a word I use to describe the contents of a movie very often; if you're one of the special few for whom this movie was made, it will haunt you.
It seems the fates are working against even this DVD release, as there's a lot going on this month, on the big screen and home video, to distract SF fans. Make sure you're not too distracted; if you've never given this movie a look, don't let it sneak past you again.