A strangely satsfiying low-budget mind-bender, and certainly one of the coolest flicks to come out of New Zealand (before Peter Jackson showed up), The Quiet Earth has lived for two decades as one of those "buzzed about" movie-geek movies. It's one of those titles that was available on VHS back in the day, and you probably never got around to seeing it, but every time someone mentions "that sci-fi flick where the guy discovers he's the last man on Earth," it's probably The Quiet Earth they're talking about.
The Quiet Earth was more or less Geoff Murphy's coming-out party, and seeing as how the guy went on to direct stuff like Young Guns 2, Under Siege 2, Fortress 2, and Freejack, I don't think I'm going out on a limb by calling The Quiet Earth Mr. Murphy's finest film. To be fair, Murphy also directed an underrated cable western called The Last Outlaw, so perhaps there's a title for your Netflix queue.
I'll have to keep the plot synopsis brief, because any extensive breakdown would inevitably spoil some of the movie's surprises, but The Quiet Earth is about a New Zealand scientist who gets out of bed one morning and goes about his morning routine ... only to discover that any trace of humanity has been erased. No friends, no co-workers, no gas station attendants. Nada. So lonely old Zack decides to do what you and I might do in the same situation: He gets a fancy new house, does a whole lot of shopping, and slowly begins losing his mind.
Occasionally Zach will ruminate upon whether the experiment he was working on was somehow responsible for the global human extermination, but he can't really be sure one way or another. And just when he's pretty much reached the end of his rope, Zach makes a discovery...
Basically, The Quiet Earth is a soft-spoken, fascinating, and impressively mounted sci-fi drama. It unfolds like a particularly cool episode of The Twilight Zone and it keeps the apocalypse interesting up to and including the deliciously ambiguous finalé. The lead performance by the late Bruno Lawrence is absolutely fantastic: he's enough of a "normal joe" to keep our attention, but he's also smart enough to figure out what's going on ... plus he's quite oddly amusing in certain scenes.
Made on a shoestring budget, but packed to bursting with clever set design and compelling ideas, The Quiet Earth has well-earned its mini-cult following, and it's very cool to finally get the flick released on DVD. (Trivia note: Now-bigtime director Lee Tamahori got his start as an assistant director on The Quiet Earth, because apparently those New Zealand filmmakers really stick together!)
Video: It's a perfectly serviceable anamorphic widescreen transfer, although you'll undoubtedly notice a good deal of speckled grain on the print. Not enough to ruin the show, but it's hardly a crystal-clear transfer. (Chalk it up to age and long-ago low budgets?)
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, which suits the rather quiet film just fine.
Extras: Producer/co-writer Sam Pillsbury contributes a feature-length audio commentary, which certainly isn't a flashy affair, but does deliver a good deal of production information -- and it's really cool to learn how they kept the New Zealand streets so absolutely person-free. Also included is the original theatrical trailer.
Consistently engaging and entirely unwilling to give up its secrets without a fight, The Quiet Earth still stands up as one of the more compelling movies ever produced on the subject of personal apocalypse. Plus it's got an ending that's a lot of fun to argue about, so be sure to watch this movie with a friend or two. (Preferably one of the intelligent ones.)