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The Last Wave

The Last Wave
Criterion 142
1977 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 106 min.
Starring Richard Chamberlain, Olivia Hamnett, David Gulpilil, Frederick Parslow, Vivean Gray, Nandjiwarra Amagula, Walter Amagula
Cinematography Russell Boyd
Production Designer Goran Warff
Film Editor Max Lemon
Original Music Charles Wain
Written by Tony Morphett, Petru Popescu and Peter Weir
Produced by Hal McElroy, Jim McElroy
Directed by Peter Weir

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Modern rationalism comes into confrontation with spiritual forces in this typically surreal Peter Weir film. Weir takes one man's journey into unknown spiritual territory, as an affirmation of a universe operating under mysterious laws modern man has forgotten.


Bizarre weather, such as a fierce hailstorm out of a clear sky, shakes up the Australian countryside. Lawyer David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) takes on the defense of five city Aborigines who seem to have killed one of their own under tribal law - but as the government doesn't acknowledge that there are tribes in the city, defending the men appears to be impossible. David efforts are frustrated by the defendants, who refuse to cooperate with his defense efforts. But he experiences recurring dream images of defendant Chris Lee (David Gulpilil), and a mysterious older native named Charlie (Nandjiwarra Amagula) turns out to be a shaman who identifies David as being from an ancient Tribe from the West. More strange phenomena - all centering on water - appear. David's research eventually lead him to surmise that some kind of cyclical cleansing of the Earth is in the offing, an apocalypse predicted - or created - by the magic of the Aborigines.

Aboriginal magic has been an unwelcome issue in some movies, especially The Right Stuff, where it becomes a poetic but idiotic reason for the strange sparkles John Glenn saw outside his Mercury capsule. Acknowledging the validity of older cultures doesn't excuse the trend to adopt their superstitions, but we live in an age where people grasp at any belief system they can find.

The Last Wave has the good sense to leave its mysterious content a mystery, concentrating on one man as the shape of his reality is irrevocably changed. Building on his penchant for the weird and the unknowable mined in Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir pits modern materialism against ancient forces, and suggests that nature is preparing to burst forth and destroy Western civilization, with some kind of disaster that will cleanse the world.

It's an uphill struggle to pull off this kind of thing, and Weir avoids all of the moralizing of melodramas that have dams burst (The Rains of Ranchipur) and Volcanoes erupt (The Time Machine) in 'answer' to the wrongdoings of humanity. He even sidesteps the P.C. tendency to paint indigenous cultures as naturally superior to our degenerate civilization. By our culture's standard, the Aborigines of The Last Wave are uncooperative and unenlightened - but seem to be carrying an inner light that expresses itself on a different wavelength, a secret knowlege of great power that makes their tawdry material existence a minor irrelevance.

Weir makes some nice social statements about modern Aboriginal life. David's wife's family has been in Australia for generations, but she's never herself met one. The public defenders consider them hopeless in court, because they don't seem to recognize what's going on, and fail to defend themselves. They're protected by paternalistic laws that treat them as if they were not human beings, but endangered wildlife.

The Last Wave sometimes resembles a horror movie. An H.P. Lovecraft atmosphere emerges in very non-gothic surroundings, when David looks to be on the brink of discovering some unknowable and destructive force existing on a parallel plane, that can break through to our reality with dramatic displays of unexplainable phenomena. The powers here turn out to be much more benign, and threaten only in that they overturn our notions of how the world works. Like Dana Andrews in Curse of the Demon, David moves from a position of skeptical ignorance, to an awareness that everything he thinks he Knows, is Wrong. If the aborigines seem to be half-conscious, it's because they live their lives partially in what they call Dream Time, a parallel existence more real than reality. David, a white man, makes a personal connection with Aborigine Chris Lee because he's sharing some of their dreams. David turns out to be something of a shaman himself, but of a different tribe. Leading David to a forbidden cave-temple, Chris makes a supreme sacrifice for his friend by violating the tribal law that mandated the earlier killing. David is a lawyer; the personal conflict of the film comes from a clash of jurisdictions.

The ethereal conclusion of The Last Wave is open for interpretation. The aqueous vision David experiences will be very frustrating to anyone truly seeking a genre conclusion to this somewhat unclassifiable thriller; it's the kind of 'far out' ending that tends to be accepted unconditionally by some, and rejected by others. For the record, Savant's take is that the experience in the cave has reconnected David to his spiritual roots, and the enormous wave that interrupts the sunny morning on the beach, is his personal vision of the apocalypse to come.

Weir is a director gifted with a precision of expression. He communicates his abstract ideas in images, even though there is a rather necessary spell-it-all-out session with museum curator Vivean Gray toward the end. He creates an atmosphere of apprehension and anticipation in a story that doesn't provide a predictable payoff for all of its portentious buildup. He sticks closely with the perturbed, concerned Chamberlain, and focuses our attention on his discoveries with just enough detached intelligence to let us guess that what we see isn't going to be explained away or neatly moralized. A hailstorm falls out of a blue sky. Then there's a rain of toads that's consistent with Christian apocalyptic lore. And there's a black rain of oil, that conjures up ecological associations. Instead, what we get is an unemphatic endorsement of the Aborigine's awareness of the living nature around us. The film seems designed to make us question our own values, to shake up our complacent beliefs.  1

The Last Wave is deceptively simple on the surface. David's stepfather, a preacher, acknowledges the old records of the natives who once lived in Sydney. The old shaman Charlie immediately recognizes an ancient water symbol on a stone in a picture from David's old photo album. The black rain and the rain of toads are 'occult phenomena' that happen from time to time in reality. Weir's message is that we material techno-men have lost touch with our spirituality, and the journey of our hero David is an interior one. We have plenty of filmmakers who make obscure puzzle films about weird mysteries, that play as weird mysteries themselves. The uniqueness of The Last Wave is that it communicates ideas about its abstract content so effectively.

Criterion's DVD of The Last Wave is yet another handsome, well-transferred disc made from original elements, that looks better than most of the 35mm prints shown in the states when it was new. The 16:9 enhancement helps resolve detail in the many dark scenes. It comes with a very interesting interview from director Weir, who talks about the difficulty of using aboriginals in a movie. David Gulpilil, the discovery of Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout, is described as having had tribal troubles stemming from his film roles. Weir openly states that filmmaking is part epiphany and part compromise, and his memories of the (then) twenty year old film bring back issues both positive and negative. 'The past', he quotes from author L. P. Hartley, 'is a foreign country. People are different there.'

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Last Wave rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, interview with Peter Weir, liner notes by Diane Jacobs
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 30, 2002


1. Since The Last Wave, movies tend to accept rather unquestioningly the potency and reality of Aboriginal magic. The sci fi film Until the End of the World makes the natural beliefs in the dream world of the Aborigines a major part of its theme.

2. The Last Wave was released on DVD in 2001. Savant's reviewing it now in conjunction with a series of Criterion films to be shown on the Sundance Cable Channel in July and August of 2002. The Last Wave will be cablecast on Sunday, July 7th at 9:00pm .

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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