The Quiet Earth (Geoff Murphy, 1985)

by Douglas Buck, Heather Macdougall April 16, 2019 3 minutes (645 words) 35mm Cinema VA-114, Le Cinéclub/The Film Society series

New Zealand scientist Zac Hobson (gravelly voiced Bruno Lawrence who apparently was also a rock musician and bit of a counter-culture legend in the land down under – well, whattya know, learn something new every day), working on a secretive project for the international corporation Delenco to create a global energy grid, wakes up to discover himself seemingly the last man on Earth… that is, before stumbling upon a young woman named Joanne (Alison Routledge) and a somewhat intimidating Māori man Api (Pete Smith), with a tense love triangle quickly developing, while at the same time the three realizing they have to figure out a way to destroy the massive Delenco project site before another destructive world-transforming ‘event’ can occur again…

Helped along by a simply gorgeous 35mm print (with some occasional audio muffle, but no biggie), the considerable pleasures of this apocalyptic sci-fi tale are really brought to life, especially in its impressively quiet and lyrical first 30 plus minutes (the most effective in the film), in which our hero (eventually revealed to be a highly flawed one), tries to come to grips with the fact that he is all alone, walking through some impressively large-scale set pieces, such as the wreckage of a commercial jet, with everyone aboard having disappeared, leaving the plane to crash into a street in the middle of the hauntingly empty city, growingly increasingly erratic, bouncing between despair and exhilaration, shooting up a Christ statue in the church, wearing a dress, driving frantically fast around the city and destroying whatever he feels like, to declaring himself before a series of cardboard cutouts of famous people he has assembled, from the balcony of the wealthy mansion he’s moved into ‘the President of this Quiet Earth’ and, eventually, contemplating suicide.

The story moves along in more formulaic narrative fashion upon the introduction of the initially befuddled Joanne and Api (with underlying racial fears around the possible danger of the indigenous character played around with in nicely subtle ways), as the three come to understand why they have remained behind on the planet, what caused it (and how Hobson shares some direct responsibility), as well as what they need to do to stop it from happening any further. Still, director Murphy does manage to wring enough intrigue about what exactly is going on to keep things interesting and the three performers are engaging enough. Its often lyrical approach, intelligent sci-fi underpinnings, mixed with a never maudlin approach to its characters’ plight and love triangle, makes it a nicely effective entry in the ‘Last Man on Earth’ subgenre; certainly worthy of its cult film status.

While I felt a certain ambivalence about the final image, which amounts to a sort of fantastique culmination of Zac’s final sacrifice to make amends for his sins, in that it leans uncomfortably close to a validation of Christian salvation with its metaphor, it remains just enigmatic enough to question how happy the ending really is. Either way, it’s certainly visually bold… and is another gorgeously captured image brought to us through that magically flickering projected image off a gorgeous 35mm print. Aaaahhhhhhh…

To liven up the night further, The Quiet Earth was preceded by an extremely rare 16mm screening of acclaimed animator Steve Segal and art director Phil Trumbo’s wildly creative animated/stop motion mashup Futuropolis, a highly enjoyable 1984 science fiction tale following the exploits of a group of space cadets as they work to stop the chaos to the universe unleashed by Lord Egghead. It’s kiddie friendly stuff, yet the animation and design, veering as it does between live action, fragmented and frantic stop motion (of even the human leads) and oddly nouveau deco costumes and sets, is really rich and unique… too much so, apparently, for a coveted spot on Saturday morning television the directing duo had hoped for.

The Quiet Earth (Geoff Murphy, 1985)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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