New Zealand, 1985
Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 21 December 2005
Source bootleg DVD
Empty streets with newspapers blowing like tumbleweed. Cars abandoned on the highways. A solitary figure casting his eyes to the sky, wondering where everybody went. From Day of the Triffids to Night of the Comet, the apocalypse has always proven a juicy topic for filmmakers. The Quiet Earth produces more than its fair share of such haunting images.
The first (and most effective) third of the film plays out in almost total silence, as scientist Zac Hobson, played by Bruno Lawrence, wakes up to find himself utterly alone, the inhabitants of his small New Zealand town, the nearby big city, and the entire planet having inexplicably vanished. Director Geoff Murphy focuses on the details: a kettle screeching in an empty room, a half- finished breakfast left on a tray, the sudden appearance of a bright red shirt hanging lifelike on the line, startling Zac and the audience. The obligatory barren city streets are photographed from a bird’s eye view, isolating Zac among the refuse and detritus of a vanished world. The soundtrack is eerily dead—even the birds have been taken.
In these opening sequences, Lawrence carries the film single-handedly. His journey towards madness is hauntingly convincing, as he parades through the streets with a bullhorn calling hopelessly for survivors, or wanders aimlessly in the rain playing the saxophone (very badly) at full volume. He enjoys brief moments of liberated glee — the film cuts from him playing with a toy train set to driving the real thing — but the seriousness of his situation is never forgotten (in stark contrast to the previous year’s Night Of The Comet, a similarly-themed American effort featuring two bubble-headed Valley girls bopping around an abandoned department store to ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’). The pain of losing all hope of human contact is vividly reinforced, as Zac first sniffs then climbs into a woman’s silk nightgown, aware that he’s losing his mind but unwilling to relinquish this last scrap of humanity (another example of Antipodean cinema’s obsession with gender roles—see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or Strictly Ballroom—this time dressing up in women’s clothes signifies the slide into insanity for an otherwise secure male).
Zac’s downward spiral culminates in an extraordinary sequence: he declares himself President of Earth before a cheering crowd of cardboard cut-outs — Bob Marley, Churchill, Hitler, and a life-size stuffed ostrich — before staggering into a nearby church and blowing the arms off the crucified Jesus with a double-barrel shotgun. But even in these wild, extreme scenes Lawrence’s bravura performance grounds the film—an ordinary man under extraordinary pressure. His gradual return to sanity is almost a disappointment—we’d come to identify with this desperate, raging figure, a sad echo of loners and outsiders everywhere.
The second act begins with the discovery of another survivor, and predictably it’s an attractive young woman—Joanne, played rather awkwardly by Alison Routledge. At this point the film begins to recall Stephen King or M. Night Shyamalan, especially Signs, a global catastrophe played out on an intimate scale. The relationship between the characters — moving from desperation to friendship to something approaching love — is never less than convincing, thanks largely to Lawrence, his face displaying the blank surprise of any lonely man suddenly finding himself in bed with a beautiful woman. But it can’t last—a third survivor, burly Aborigine Api shows up to disrupt their lives and their relationship.
The final third of the film is by far the least convincing, as the sci-fi nature of the plot begins to take over, and one too many easy coincidences undermine the claustrophobic atmosphere (Zac just happens to hold the key to the entire mystery). The interracial love triangle never develops into anything much, feeling like a lazy lift from The World, the Flesh and the Devil. A sex scene and a car chase are clumsily shoehorned in, and the climax is predictable long before it happens. The filmmakers seem to presume that the audience will be satisfied when Joanne ends up with grim-faced Api, but they’ve sorely underestimated the likeability of Lawrence’s performance as Zac. In the end, we feel cheated for him, especially when he sacrifices his life to save the others.
Which leaves us with the closing shot, a moment of Kubrickian hubris which leaves the viewer simultaneously enchanted and perplexed. Dying in a massive fireball, Zac awakens to find himself on a deserted shore, mushroom clouds rising in the distance and a vast, ringed planet setting over his head. It’s an extraordinary image: part Dr. Strangelove, part 2001, but far less explicable than either. Is Zac in heaven? On a distant planet? Is this where the population of Earth went, because there’s no sign of them? It’s a frustrating puzzle, perhaps even an act of sheer random laziness, but if nothing else, it’s an unexpected treat for the eyes.
The Quiet Earth was another Antipodean film clearly intended as a calling-card for Hollywood, and in Murphy’s case, the call came swiftly. Sadly, he ended up a Z-list director, descending from the relative heights of pseudo-cyberpunk B-movie Freejack to the DTV embarrassment that was Fortress 2: Re- Entry. At last he returned to the motherland and the ignominy of 2nd Unit, even if it was for Peter Jackson on Lord of The Rings. This is a shame, because his direction on The Quiet Earth, though workmanlike at times, showed real promise, with moments of unique beauty ranging from intimate scenes like Zac and Joanne’s first breakfast in bed, to the sadness inherent in a sing-a-long of ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ to the grandiose, otherworldly beauty of the final image.
But it’s Bruno Lawrence who is the real hero here—his performance holds the film together, as he lurches from ordinariness to ferocious insanity without missing a beat. Sadly, he passed away a decade ago, a victim of lung cancer. But this film stands as a fitting tribute, if only for the memorable image of Zac on the balcony before his adoring crowd of cut-outs, Caesar-like in a salmon pink toga, his eyes filled with tears, declaring himself “President… of this Quiet Earth.”