The first time I saw Geoffrey Murphy's The Quiet Earth (1985), I pretty much hated it. This subdued, sobering slice of post-apocalyptic drama certainly had its moments---and a convincingly bleak low-budget atmosphere to boot---yet its outright refusal to answer a few lingering questions ultimately made my first viewing a frustrating, flat experience. But I softened on The Quiet Earth after a while, eventually appreciating it for the same reasons that made me dislike it in the first place. Like most folks, the opportunity to even watch it came from Anchor Bay's 2006 DVD, a slick-looking Steelbook package with intriguing cover artwork. Before that, the film enjoyed an even more limited cult status on cable and VHS during the previous two decades, both in its native New Zealand and abroad.
One thing's for sure: if you like small casts, The Quiet Earth might be up your alley. Like most post-apocalyptic fare (I Am Legend, 28 Days Later and, to a lesser extent, The Road), our story begins with a survivor looking for (1) others like him, and (2) a potential solution for the disaster. Our man of action is Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence, who also co-wrote the screenplay based on Craig Harrison's source novel), a scientist whose last memory was working on a global energy grid experiment known as "Project Flashlight". At some point during the experiment, all life on Earth apparently just...vanished, as evidenced by fastened seat belts in empty, crashed vehicles (including an airplane) and unfinished meals in abandoned houses. Naturally, it takes time for Zac to adjust: during the first third of this 90-minute film, he explores the remains of New Zealand, takes things he normally couldn't afford, records a looping radio distress call, destroys a church, plays a saxophone in the rain, rides around in a locomotive, and tries on a woman's slip while walking around with a loaded shotgun. You know, the usual stuff when nobody else is around.
Soon enough, The Quiet Earth succumbs to its own loneliness: Zac eventually meets liberated redhead Joanne (Alison Routledge) and M?ori descendent Api (Pete Smith) along the way, both of whom are initially cautious but glad to find kindred spirits. A love triangle inevitably---and, if I'm being honest, disappointingly---develops but, after a brief Alpha Male tussle, The Quiet Earth returns to its noble quest to explain/resolve the apparent global disaster. Both the science and plot are more than a little shaky at times, and the somewhat unbelievable reason for their current and continued existence requires suspension of disbelief. An unpredictable ending pushes this critical element even further, eventually taking at least one survivor much deeper into Twilight Zone territory; it kind of works within The Quiet Earth's odd boundaries, but I certainly wouldn't blame you for hating it the first time either.
Naturally, any film destined to leave most of its audience on the fence almost requires a thoughtful, lovingly assembled home video package to tip them in the right direction...but you don't really get that with Film Movement's new Blu-ray. Arriving a full decade after Anchor Bay's DVD, this curious cult film didn't feel like an obvious candidate for Blu-ray but seemed promising with a brand new 2K digital restoration and audio commentary featuring, of all people, the articulate astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Yet loudly I shout from the rooftops: don't get your hopes up.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, The Quiet Earth is sourced from a new 2K digital restoration and, at times, looks very good. Outdoor scenes showcase a decent amount of depth and detail, easily outpacing the processed appearance of older DVD presentations. Colors look great too, with pleasing shades that look similar to earlier efforts without the added red push. But there are at least two glaring problems here: a mild to moderate amount of digital noise reduction has been added, and black levels are all over the map in many cases. As for the former, it's most evident in medium to long shots, as textures are apparent but not quite at the level they should be. But the latter is ultimately more distracting: blacks run the gamut from actual black to medium-grey to what I call "Instagram purple", giving random scenes an oddly faded appearance that diminish their strength. I'd definitely call foul on this transfer as a whole; it's a clean step up from the DVD to be sure, but far from a perfect presentation.
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We get two choices here, but neither is the film's original Dolby Stereo mix. Luckily, the default DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track (also available in Dolby Digital 5.1 for whatever reason, as if all Blu-ray players and receivers weren't capable of down-mixing automatically) is a tasteful remix with well-balanced music and effects. Channel separation and LFE are present but not overpowering, while many moments are played to great effect with subtle and not-so-subtle touches along the way. Unfortunately, a small portion of the limited dialogue---mostly Api's, later in the film---is a bit tough to decipher for non-natives, which makes the lack of optional English subtitles all the more painful. Still, this is a fairly effective mix that, for the most part, adds to the film's moderate effectiveness.
Film Movement's menu interface is basic and easy to navigate, although a half-dozen or so trailers must be skipped beforehand. Separate options include audio set-up, chapter selection, and bonus features, along with a handy "Resume" function and pop-up menu during the main feature. This one-disc package arrives in a sharp-looking clear keepcase with attractive two-sided artwork and a nice Booklet featuring production stills, credits, and a new essay by Professor Teresa Heffernan (who probably should've done an audio commentary, but more on that later).
The main extra is an anticipated Audio Commentary with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and critic Odie Henderson. Their topics of discussion include the post-apocalyptic genre, 1985 computer technology, nitpicking a few details (and in some cases, pointing out admirably correct ones), how to make explosions, religious symbols, Zac's range of emotions, changing the laws of physics, Tyson's resemblance to Api, love triangles and Alpha males, genetically diverse offspring, the ending, and...well, not much else, as this is one of the most poorly organized and executed commentaries in recent memory. It's obvious that neither participant watched this beforehand (Tyson mentions that The Quiet Earth is "one of his favorite films", yet later mentions "seeing it again 30 years later" and "enjoying it more the second time around"): their comments are much more off-the-cuff than researched, and the overwhelming amount of dead air is painful. I'd bet that they speak for maybe 15 or 20 minutes combined...and considering the film's sparse audio to begin with, this is more of an exercise in patience than an enjoyable, rewarding listen. What a bummer!
Also here is The Quiet Earth's Re-release Trailer touting its new digital restoration, as well as a half-dozen trailers for other Film Movement Blu-rays. Sadly, both supplements from Anchor Bay's respectable 2006 DVD (a vastly superior audio commentary with producer Sam Pillsbury, and the film's original trailer) are nowhere to be found.
The Quiet Earth isn't necessarily a top-tier effort even within the small sub-genre of post-apocalyptic drama, but the film's terrific atmosphere and efficient underdog mentality go a long way in my book. It's an enjoyable effort in the right mood, even if---and perhaps because---the surprisingly ambitious plot doesn't always add up and the ending takes a sharp left turn into uncharted territory. Yet this is definitely niche material, as The Quiet Earth doesn't answer a lot of questions and will quickly alienate first-time viewers who aren't willing to suspend a certain amount of disbelief. Sadly, Film Movement's Blu-ray should've been an easy slam-dunk out of nowhere, but the new 2K restoration is somewhat disappointing and the intriguing audio commentary is a total bust. Factor in the loss of original 2.0 audio, no optional subtitles, and two missing supplements from Anchor Bay's respectable 2006 DVD, and you've got one disappointing and overpriced disc. Die-hard fans may want to indulge, but first-time viewers should Rent It.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.