The Quiet Earth (1985)

Director: Geoff Murphy

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

So-called “last person on earth” films have a small, but respectable place in the scifi genre. Among entries in this subgenre are Last Man on Earth (1924), The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), The Last Woman on Earth (1960), The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (1967), The Omega Man (1971), Virus (1982), Testament (1983), Night of the Comet (1984), and last year’s Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend. The New Zealand film The Quiet Earth is a cult classic that brings an interesting sensibility to the premise of having the world to yourself, in great part due to the touching, nuanced, and utterly original performance of Bruno Lawrence.

In a deliberate, powerful, opening sequence, the camera tracks a sunrise on the ocean. The sun is huge, red, and when it breaks free of the horizon, its reflection in the water creates the impression of a figure 8—the symbol for infinity. Next, we have a high overhead shot down on a naked man laying on a bed. The sun pouring through the blinds stirs him. He looks at the clock on his nightstand. It reads 6:12. He gets up, walks to a mirror, pulls an identity badge off his neck in disgust, and looks back at the clock. It seems stuck at 6:12. Finally, the numerals flip to 6:13.

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The man, Zac Hobson (Lawrence), drives away, stopping for gas. When he goes into the office to pay, nobody is there. Further explorations show cars apparently abandoned on the highways, water left running until it floods a house, beds unmade and breakfasts half-eaten. In the most chilling sequence, Hobson comes upon what looks like a warehouse site, blanketed with flames. Amid the charred and twisted steel, Zac finds an airplane engine and a row of seats, empty, but with their seatbelts fastened.

Zac drives with purpose to a secure facility crowned with a huge radio satellite dish. He uses his security clearance card to enter the empty facility, where computer monitors show that Project Flashlight has been successfully completed. Reaching the bowels of the facility, he sees a body slumped over a console. The skin is dessicated, the eyes bulging hideously. “Now you’ve done it,” despairs Zac. He seems to suspect that the disappearing of all life on Earth—except him, of course—was the result of this project gone horribly wrong.

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At first, Zac attempts to contact anyone who might be around. An electronic/computer/ engineering expert, Zac records a tape loop broadcasting widely with instructions on how to contact him. After five days, he changes his lifestyle and his message, telling to whom it may concern his new address and phone number—those of a stately home on a hill, replete with all the luxuries. He christens his new digs by drinking a raw egg with champagne. Then, he runs through a mall, eating confections at a bakery, grabbing new clothes, guns and ammunition, electronics, anything at all. He gets destructive, mowing down buildings with large earth-moving equipment and shooting out a television set whose videotaped program annoys him. He puts on a silk slip found in the closet of the house he is occupying and wanders onto a stadium field, madness and fury written on his face. He enters a church and, angry at God, yells, “If you don’t come out I’ll shoot the kid!” With no response forthcoming, he empties his rifle into a large crucifix of Jesus. In his existential despair, he puts his rifle inside his mouth, contemplating suicide.

Still, Zac pulls himself together somewhat. He abandons the home he has wrecked and moves to a modern-style mansion on the ocean. He seems more peaceful, more purposeful as he plans to plant a garden for food staples. He might just make it after all and perhaps figure out what happened to life on Earth. Then suddenly, from around the windblown draperies to his veranda steps Joanne (Alison Routledge), a beautiful redhead pointing a pistol at him. After a few startled moment, they hug each other in relief.

Zac is aware of how much younger Joanne is and keeps their relationship respectable. Eventually, they become lovers, prompting the most memorable scene of a memorable performance by Lawrence. Joanne comes into the bedroom wearing a maid’s outfit and places a tray with his breakfast on his lap. Then, she turns to leave, revealing her bare ass. He is so overcome by the sight that he leaps to grab her and burns himself with hot coffee. The spontaneity of the two actors is delightful and very human.

Of course, despite some respite from their despairing loneliness, the pair continues to look for others, and Zac continues to try to understand the exact nature of what Joanne calls “the effect.” In fact, they experience the effect again, and Zac explains that New Zealand was part of a worldwide consortium cooperating with the Americans in setting up an energy grid so that planes could fly great distances without refueling. This scheme is an obvious allusion to the “Star Wars” air defense network proposed by President Reagan in 1983, but never implemented. The allusion goes further in critiquing privatization of such important functions by making the fictional grid system a corporate initiative that certainly has military implications.

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Zac measures the effect and proves that the immutable laws of physics have been broken. Are they in an alternate dimension, and are the rest of Earth’s inhabitants living in a different space-time continuum? Before Zac arrives at an answer, a Maori man named Api (Pete Smith) turns up, creating a greater sense of community for the three but also setting up a love triangle. Eventually, the trio discovers the reason they are existing in the same dimension—the effect occurred at the very moment of their deaths—and Zac comes up with a strategy to deal with the effect, which is getting more intense with each passing day. What happens to him when he sets his solution in motion provides an end to the film as memorable—and just as puzzling—as that of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Pete Smith is a scary alpha male and spiritual, sensitive soul all at the same time. I was quite moved by his account of the moment of his death and appreciated his friendly-ferocious sparring with Lawrence. Routledge, frankly, is a piece of fluff playing a piece of fluff. She has a certain hippie sensibility when it comes to their circle of three, and her taste in outlandish costuming fits that ethos to a tee. She was a perfect object of desire, but not much more.

If this movie hadn’t cheated by not allowing Zac to be the last person on Earth, Lawrence would have made the best sole survivor in history. His fearless performance took him to the very edge of insanity and suppressed desires in an extremely well-modulated performance. Zac is a character who enjoyed his own company before the effect, despairs at having it foisted on him, yet clings to his self-isolation by lying to Api and Joanne about the origins of the effect and his plans—a sin neither of them can understand. Lawrence’s haunted eyes tell us volumes about his fears and his resignation to actions he must take. His joy, well tempered, bursts out like a brief laser blast. He is simply one of the most incredible actors I’ve had the pleasure to watch, accomplishing what would be said about Heath Ledger a generation later—seemingly effortless truth in the roles he played.

The spectacular scenery of Auckland adds to our appreciation of the world in which we live and signals the nostalgia overtaking our three survivors, but most especially Zac, even as they walk along its beaches and plunge into its oceans. This film has an ache, one I’ll be feeling for a long time to come. l

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    19th/02/2008 to 1:46 pm

    Marilyn – I saw this in the theater during its initial release (the theater contained my friend and I and two other patrons) and loved it. I haven’t seen it since (so we’re talking a good 23 years of back memory I’m going on here) but I remember being disappointed when Zac wasn’t the last man on Earth. In the same way I was disappointed in The World, Flesh and the Devil when Harry Belafonte wasn’t the last man on Earth either. But I still enjoyed it very much and would like to see it again.
    I wonder why filmmakers are afraid to just have one person be on the planet? When exploring how the human psyche deals with the solitude of being alone on a planet I don’t want a love triangle to get in the way (in both cases two males, one female). And if it’s not a love triangle it’s the whole subset of children and zombies in I Am Legend. I can think of other films like Silent Running and the anthology tale The Lonely Death of Jordy Verril in Creepshow where the idea of one man dealing with isolation is captivating. Too bad more haven’t done it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/02/2008 to 2:44 pm

    Jonathan – I’ve read a bit about “last person on earth” films, and it seems that producers are afraid that there won’t be enough dramatic tension to sustain a narrative of a true one-hander. I, like, you, disagree with that supposition. In fact, Cast Away‘s best moments were of Tom Hanks alone on the island. That was a great short film in and of itself and full of drama and poignancy. Using “Wilson” as a companion was a great way to suggest company and still have the protagonist dealing with his isolation.
    On the whole, though, The Quiet Earth‘s additional characters did at least add to the plot regarding why they were there when everyone else had vanished. It also left the intriguing possibility that they really were dead and in some kind of purgatory, heaven, or hell.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    19th/02/2008 to 3:06 pm

    I definitely need to see it again because I can’t remember the specifics of the other characters or the ending. I’ve added it to the queue.

  • Roy spoke:
    18th/03/2009 to 7:52 am

    Note spoiler ahead: it is highly likely that Zac is truly alone at the conclusion of the film and so the film manages to deal with the human psyche in apparent isolation, add characters which add to the experience, and then leave him truly alone. Trailer for the film actually reveals there are other survivors. Bloody great flick though.

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