The Quiet Earth

March 27, 2020

quietearthSome months ago, little New Zealand attracted the world’s attention when it quixotically declared itself a nuclear-free zone in response to nuclear tests in the South Pacific. The country’s declaration seems relevant to the newest film to come out of New Zealand, which, although it doesn’t actually name nuclear weapons as the source of the apocalypse it portrays, is obviously an analogical version of life after a nuclear war.

The Quiet Earth is the work of the leading filmmakers in New Zealand: director Geoff Murphy, whose Utu was one of the most intriguing movies of the past year, and actor/co-screenwriter Bruno Lawrence, who gave brilliant performances in Utu and Smash Palace.

For The Quiet Earth, they’ve adapted a science-­fiction novel by Craig Harrison. It’s one of those end-of-the-world things, in which a survivor searches for the reasons for the catastrophe, and for other survivors.

In this case, the survivor, played by Lawrence, may have had something to do with the apocalyptic disaster. He’s a research scientist who’s been working on a top­-secret project called Operation Flashlight, which was supposed to construct an energy grid that would circle the earth. This would allow high-flying planes to refuel without landing.

One sunny morning, Lawrence wakes up, vaguely aware of a slight atmospheric zap. When he goes out, he discovers that at 6:12 that morning, Operation Flashlight was launched. The grid was constructed, but there was a little side effect: every animal on Earth was vaporized. Lawrence finds everything empty: lights are on, engines are running, tables are set – but the people are gone.

He has no idea why he’s still around, but he guiltily guesses it might be some sort of retribution for his part in the destruction. “I’ve been condemned to live,” he mutters.

Lawrence fights off the madness that might come from such solitude. He paints billboards that say, “Am I the only person left on Earth? Please contact me at …. ” He sends out radio messages. He takes comfort in the godlike freedom he has: living in the best houses, drinking the finest champagne, wearing snazzy clothes.

He will, well into the film, meet other survivors; a hip young girl (Alison Routledge) and a Maori – one of the native New Zealanders, comparable to the Indians of the United States – played by Peter Smith.

Obviously, these people each “represent” something, but Murphy doesn’t let them become symbols at the expense of the characters. And he imbues the film with the same kind of weird, sidelong humor that sparked Utu.

Some of the visuals are unforgettable: a huge, shimmering orange sun rising into a red sky in the film’s opening shot; Lawrence playing the saxophone down a deserted, rainy street at night; the final, enigmatic image, where Lawrence strides toward something impossible but nevertheless visible.

This ending is inexplicable. Lawrence has spouted some gobbledygook about the space-time continuum being disrupted, and that may provide a clue. Or not. The ending is curious, but it certainly is beautiful, and it’ll rattle around in your mind for a long time after.

First published in the Herald, November 15, 1985

I just re-watched this one, having carried fond memories of it for years. It’s still effective. This review is probably spoiler-heavy by 2020 standards, although there isn’t much that would be surprising to anybody who likes Last Man on Earth movies. And what an ending! I don’t know why I said the ending was inexplicable, as the film does prepare a couple of distinct possibilities, which fit neatly into the imagery we see. The music, by John Charles, has a big effect on the final sequence as well; it’s a big orchestral piece with distinctly sci-fi moodiness. Lawrence was always an interesting actor, with his boxer’s face and odd sense of vulnerability; Smash Palace is an amazing showcase for him. Funny how times change; I felt the need to explain “Maori,” which I wouldn’t do today.