Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Quiet Earth ( New Zealand, 1985)

Geoff Murphy is hardly a director to surprise; his output over the past decades has simply been crappy (which might explain why he is primarily busy as a second unit director nowadays). Young Guns II (1990), Freejack (1992), Under Siege II (1995) and Fortress II (1999)—a nonstop series of bullshit, the type of movies that give cinema a bad name, that make a video hound feel like he's actually wasting his life by sitting in front of the television. That makes this film a rather pleasant surprise. Hardly an action film, The Quiet Earth veers more towards artsy-fartsy, as in slow and enigmatic and more interesting than exciting. Still, the modernized version of Ranald MacDogall's The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) does take a few risks and for the most part works, even if it confuses. Sure it's flawed, but it gets some good mileage. Based on a novel by Craig Harrison, the script was co-written by one of the three stars of the movie, Bruno Lawrence. Mostly unknown outside of New Zealand, Lawrence seems to have been part of every second flick made in New Zealand throughout the 80s. He died of lung cancer in 1995.
The Quiet Earth starts with Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) sprawled naked on a bed when a sudden kaleidoscopic light show goes through his head and wakes him up. Awakening from what seems to be one nasty hangover, we find out later that he had actually been trying to commit suicide and was waking up from an overdose of sleeping tablets. Stumbling back into the real world, he slowly begins to realize that the world is empty of all human and animal life (why there should still be plant life is a question never dealt with). Later, returning to the science lab where he had worked, he discovers the dead body of the experiment director and realizes and intones in his portable Dictaphone: "One: there has been a malfunction in Project Flashlight with devastating results. Two: it seems I am the only person left on earth." It seems that the powers that be were experimenting in harnessing an electrical wavelength that encircles the world and that when they threw the switch, either everyone in the world died or flew off to some unknown dimension. (One of the flaws in the story that one must ignore is that only people who were dying at the moment of the big bang remain on The Quiet Earth. Considering the statistic of how many people die every second, there would have to be hundreds more than the three the story involves. Likewise, many more dead bodies would be found than the few stumbled upon along the way.)
The first half of The Quiet Earth is an interesting study of a man slowly going bonkers due to oppressive solitude, slipping from playing the saxophone in the rain to running around a football field in a filthy slip to giving speeches to a yard full of cut out figurines and a tape queued to give applause at the proper moment. Once Joanne (Alison Routledge) and Api (Pete Smith) show up, however, the story becomes more traditional. In keeping with the earlier film that inspired this story, Joanne is lily white and Api is a Marui, but luckily the racial aspect is not of any real importance in this film. (This aspect is what ruins The World, the Flesh and the Devil, which attempts to be a liberal message movie but flounders in its own innate prejudices.) Instead, aside from the interpersonal problems that remain more in the background, the story focuses on Zac's discovery that the big bang that ended the world is due to happen again, and that maybe, if they destroy the station where he had worked, they might be able to break a link in the chain of energy and possibly either restore the world to like it was before or at least stop the complete destruction of the quiet earth as they now live it. Can they do so in time?
The ending of The Quiet Earth is probably the most argued aspect of the movie. If you have problems with the concept of inter-dimensional travel, the film ain't much for you in the first place. But if such normal sci-fi concepts don't bother you, the ending is still enigmatic and unexpected enough to throw many a viewer for a loop. Who survived? Who is dead? What is death? There are no easy answers given as the final credits role, only a close up of Zac's face, overwhelmed in both surprise and awe.

It's a shame that director Geoff Murphy never lived up to the career this film seemed to promise. Unlike the third-rate tripe he has made over the past decades, The Quiet Earth is at least interesting, unpredictable and trying to be something different. If you liked Freejack or The Fortress II (or The Fortress (1993), for that matter), steer clear. If you like more cerebral, obscure stuff like Zardoz (1974), you might give this film a try.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

You're kind of an asshole.

Bryin Abraham said...

Thank you for your well-argued viewpoint you offer to support your statement. You have won my utmost respect, as do all people who are willing to put their names to their opinions.

Anonymous said...

Almost a year on and I still think you're an asshole.

Abraham said...

So you can't get your mind off assholes – are you into rimming? Almost a year and, uh, to tell the truth we haven't thought of you at all. But as we said before, it is always a pleasure to hear from erudite folks who stand to their beliefs. We must admit, to have you return to us after almost a year rather makes us feel good: we must be doing something right to remain so unforgotten. Still, somehow we get the feeling that your life must be, well, rather empty... which means you're reading the right blog. May you continue to enjoy it!

Anonymous said...

Well it's been three years and you are still an asshole.

Anonymous said...

Actually, since the film is set in New Zealand, you can't expect too many survivors walking around. You mentioned hundreds, but assuming one hundred were to die each second, their entire population would be depleted in about twelve hours on a normal day, which would make things a bit difficult for them.

Ralph E. Vaughan said...

A good overview of the film. I saw it more than twenty years ago, and it still sticks with me as few other films have, especially that dreamlike, almost mythic ending. It's a very difficult film to find on television. I just found the book on sale in Kindle format, but given the usual relationship between books and the films they engender I doubt I'll understand the film any better, but maybe I'll find out what the author had in mind.

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