Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Quiet Earth followed up a quiet American theatrical release in 1985 with a short life as a curiosity on cable TV and VHS, where its arresting key art attracted fantasy fans. The Road Warrior had recently contemplated a violent post-apocalyptic world friendly to the needs of the gross-out action genre, but this calm little thriller offered relatively few thrills to parlay beyond its intriguing premise: A man suddenly discovers he's the only person left on Earth. It's hardly a new idea but it hadn't been exploited to any great degree since the early 1960s and episodes of TV shows like The Twilight Zone.
The release from the then-budding New Zealand film industry has a refreshing Kiwi sensibility combined with a stellar central performance from the always-interesting Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace). Although The Quiet Earth invents some interesting pseudo-science to motivate its premise, it suffers the same dramatic problems experienced by earlier American attempts at the "Last Man Alive" science fiction subgenre.
Scientist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) wakes up to find he's the only person left in the world. He tries to adjust to the solitude, raiding consumer goods and finding a fancy apartment, but loneliness causes him to turn first eccentric and then delusional. Then it appears that Zac is not entirely alone after all ...
Fifties science fiction movies were quick to discover the morbid thrill of the 'depopulated Earth' concept, in which humanity has mysteriously disappeared or been driven away by a cataclysmic atomic war, a verminous plague, or even an alien invasion. The basic fantasy is an attractive one. "We" are the lucky survivors who inherit an empty city. A place built for millions now has only one or a few inhabitants. With all the people gone our hero gets to indulge our daydream fantasies of unlimited consumer shopping benders. Like a good materialist, nobody takes advantage of unrestricted access to the public library, but the survivors instead grab new cars, fancy clothes and the best penthouse apartment in town. People may forget details in pictures like The Omega Man or Dawn of the Dead, but they don't forget images of people raiding shopping malls, or Charlton Heston driving a new car right through the showroom's plate glass window.
Strange antecedent films like RKO's 1933 Deluge mined the initial idea of rag-tag survivors living in a ruined world, while 1950s movies revolved around the specter of atomic war. Arch Oboler's surviving Five made a limited foray into a city strewn with corpses. The expense needed to empty city streets for scenes of this nature gave the advantage to large studio efforts like George Pal's The War of the Worlds, although a few minutes at the beginning of the otherwise unimpressive Target: Earth did the same on a nothing budget. In 1959 came The World, The Flesh and The Devil, a full-blown fantasy that stranded Harry Belafonte in an empty New York City. Its deserted devastated look was established by clever camera angles and shooting early on Sunday mornings.
The Quiet Earth mimics The World, The Flesh and The Devil, at least at the outset. Zac Hobson wakes up naked on his bed to discover he's inherited an empty world, with all of New Zealand at his personal disposal. Previous fantasies made excuses for the absence of unpleasant rotting corpses; in On the Beach a character theorizes that dying people hide themselves to die, like dogs and cats. The Quiet Earth's author Craig Harrison has it in mind that living things just disappear, leaving empty planes to crash (Zac comes upon a very convincing wreckage site) and cars to collide or roll to a halt. People vanish from their beds and babies from their bassinets, leaving their blankets wrapped around nothing at all.
All of the movies in this subgenre are most effective in the early stages, where the lost individual roams among the empty streets and abandoned vehicles of his new environment. The Quiet Earth is better than most thanks to Bruno Lawrence's intriguing performance. He starts to flip out, imagining that he's God. He goes nuts for a while and dresses in a woman's clothes, perhaps having slipped his gears on the notion of never seeing a living woman again. We eventually find out that his anguish over what has happened is more complicated than first presented.
Zac is actually a dissenting member of a scientific team that endeavored to take part in "Project Flashlight," the alignment of satellite dishes, to produce some undisclosed kind of chain-reaction effect. In a development anticipating elements of Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World, Zac's colleagues forge ahead even though their American 'partners' have been withholding information. Fearing that the balance of matter and energy in the universe will be disrupted, Zac has retreated to his house to commit suicide rather than find out what will happen.
Just as Lisa Simpson predicts, 1 Zac's experiment shifts the entire universe into a new dimension, leaving behind everything alive, even bugs. Zac is the only living creature around because he was in the process of dying just as the 'reality shift' took place. Like, far out, man. So he doesn't know if his team has obliterated all of life on Earth, or if everyone else is back in a different reality from which he has disappeared, or what. It's a regular conun ...conan... com ... riddle.
(oh heck, this will all be spoilers until further notice)
This is the point where The Quiet Earth has little choice but to follow the same story path that didn't work well for earlier movies. The World, The Flesh and The Devil's Harry Belafonte finds first a surviving female (Inger Stevens) and then a male competitor (Mel Ferrer) and the rest of the movie becomes a competition for the twin crown of Alpha Male and Racial Winner. The next year, Roger Corman did a low budget Puerto Rican re-think that envisioned a similar love triangle as a struggle to possess The Last Woman on Earth, voluptuous Betsy Jones-Moreland. In both instances the science fiction aspects get dropped in favor of social and philosophical speechmaking.
The Quiet Earth tries to keep developing its sci-fi premise with mixed results. Post-apocalyptic Tarzan Zac finds a Jane in Joanne (Alison Routledge), a good-looking blonde who happened to electrocute herself with a hair dryer just as the shift took place in the time-space continuum. They have a celebratory fling together after the happy discovery of their compatibility. Then a third wheel shows up in Api (Pete Smith), a Maori truck driver who was in the process of being strangled at the appointed cosmic event. Just as in The Last Woman on Earth, a triangle forms, but Zac opts out of the competition when he sees the need to alter the big experiment. Instruments tell him that the experiment's reality shift will either correct itself or be altered again, at a predictable moment only a few hours away. He somehow gets the idea that simultaneously setting off a big explosion at the lab would be a good idea; we don't learn much more than that. The plot sputters to a finale with some unsatisfying action (breaking a roadblock) and unclear character complications (in search of variety, Joanne defects to Api's manly arms).
The conclusion is straight out of the Twilight Zone playbook, leaving us with a conceptual tease and no real answers. Zac walks along a new beach with bizarre clouds and unfamiliar planets rising in the heavens (see box cover, above), so we have to conclude that the experiment's second burp has skipped reality into yet another cosmic groove. If logic follows, both Joanne and Api are (destroyed/stranded behind). Zac prevails because he was again at the point of death when the shift occurred. Reality can be a real bummer when the eggheads screw around with stuff they don't understand, you know; Zac's lonely fate reminds us of the bleak beach at the end of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. It also has similarities with the supernatural conclusion of Lucio Fulci's The Beyond.
(spoilers are finished, methinks)
The Quiet Earth is clever and interesting as a sci-fi spectacle but essentially unsatisfying as a drama. There aren't that many revelations in Zac's solitary adventure, although it's fun to see him jumping from toy trains to a real one to satisfy his urge to play engineer. The underwritten dramatic triangle contains no great discoveries either. We watch the muddled and unmemorable character interplay thinking that people in this situation must have more to talk about.
Finally, the 'scientific' hoodoo becomes unconvincing when it distills into a convenient deadline situation for the end. The Quiet Earth really plays like a version of the creaky old play Outward Bound, only without any character conflicts. Zac, Joanne and Api might as well be lost souls in limbo after trying to kill themselves (maybe that disqualifies all but Zac); instead of ship in a foggy sea between Earth and Heaven, these characters find themselves in a cosmic penalty box.
Director Geoff Murphy moved to the U.S. in the '90s to shoot mostly sequels; he's the credited Second Unit Director on the three Lord of the Rings films.
Anchor Bay's beautiful presentation of The Quiet Earth looks far better than old flat TV and VHS copies; the enhanced 1:85 transfer has rich color in the New Zealand exteriors. The production has its limitations but except for the unsteady registration in the final image, all looks good. The disc comes in a hard, angular case similar to the one for Universal's Dune, The Extended Edition.
The Quiet Earth is one of those movies best seen without too many spoilers, which makes us wonder if it was necessary for the theatrical trailer (included) to reveal so many of the show's surprises. Writer/Producer Sam Pillsbury provides a thoughtful and informative commentary, offering nuggets of wisdom such as the fact that it's a lot easier to empty scenes of things like people than it is to creatively fill them up, so the "empty Earth" look wasn't as tough to achieve as one might think. Also in the book the depopulation of the Earth had something to do with fruit fly genes instead of radio physics. Pillsbury also proudly acknowledges his anti-nuke stance. Over the end scene, he happily announces that New Zealand has rejected American entreaties and is still Nuke-free.
Ace film writer Richard Harland Smith provides program notes on an insert booklet; he brings up many of the same antecedent films Savant does but has a different interpretation of their significance. More significantly, from his commentary producer Pillsbury doesn't seem to be at all familiar with any of the earlier "Last Man Alive" pictures.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Quiet Earth rates:
Supplements: Commentary from writer/producer Sam Pillsbury, trailer
Packaging: Metallic Keep case
Reviewed: June 11, 2006
1. A Halloween episode of The Simpsons perfectly encapsulates the banal nature of science fiction 'revelations' when young Lisa Simpson comes upon a weird vortex in the wall of a room. With a bored expression, she says, (para.) "Oh look. A break in the space-time continuum."
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson