Remember the warning to avoid ‘crossing the streams’ in Ghostbusters? Director Geoff Murphy enjoyed a world-wide release for this eerie sci-fi fantasy about a scientist who becomes unstuck in time-space, alone in an empty world.
The Quiet Earth
1985 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 91 min. / Street Date December 6, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge, Pete Smith
Cinematography James Bartle
Production Designer Josephine Ford
Art Direction Rick Kofoed
Film Editor Michael Horton
Original Music John Charles
Written by Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence, Sam Pillsbury from the novel by Craig Harrison
Produced by Sam Pillsbury, Don Reynolds
Directed by Geoff Murphy
New Zealand was indeed quiet on science fiction filmmaking before the massive production Lord of the Rings. When Geoff Murphy and Bruno Lawrence surfaced in 1985 with The Quiet Earth it was received as a pleasant surprise, a brainy alternative to the Australian Road Warrior series. Distinguished by its arresting key art of a Saturn-like planet rising in an alien sky, the show followed up its quiet American theatrical release with a short life as a curiosity on cable TV and VHS. The calm little thriller offers an interesting lead performance and a few action thrills to go with its intriguing premise of a man who suddenly discovers he’s the only person left on Earth. It’s hardly a new idea, but it hadn’t been exploited to any great degree since the early 1960s and episodes of TV shows like The Twilight Zone.
This product of the then-budding New Zealand film industry combines a refreshing Kiwi sensibility with a stellar central performance from the always-interesting Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace). Although The Quiet Earth invents some interesting pseudo-science to motivate its premise, it suffers the same dramatic problems experienced by earlier American attempts at the ‘Last Man Alive’ science fiction subgenre.
Scientist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) awakens one day to find he’s the only person left in the world. Every living man and animal has simply disappeared. Zac knows what has happened, as he was part of an international scientific project to revolutionize human life. A test with the grid went long, and a ‘reality event’ has shifted the entire universe into another reality. The guilty scientist adjusts to his solitude by raiding consumer goods and stocking a fancy apartment, but loneliness causes him to turn first eccentric and then delusional. Then it appears that Zac is not entirely alone after all.
Fifties science fiction movies were quick to discover the morbid thrill of the ‘depopulated Earth’ concept, in which humanity has been wiped out by a cataclysm: an atomic war, a plague or even an alien invasion. The basic fantasy is an attractive one. ‘We’ are the lucky survivors who inherit an empty city, a place constructed for millions. With all the people gone, we vicariously enjoy our hero’s daydream fantasy of an unlimited consumer shopping bender. Nobody takes advantage of unrestricted access to the public library. The survivors instead grab new cars, fancy clothes and the best penthouse apartment in town. The filmmakers may go fuzzy on the details in pictures like The Omega Man or Dawn of the Dead, but they don’t forget images of people raiding shopping malls, or Charlton Heston driving a new car through a plate glass showroom window.
Strange antecedents like RKO’s 1933 Deluge mined the initial idea of rag-tag survivors living in a world ruined by a natural disaster, while 1950s movies like Five revolved around the specter of atomic war. The expense of emptying city streets for scenes of this nature gave the advantage to large studio efforts like George Pal’s The War of the Worlds, although a few minutes at the beginning of the otherwise unimpressive Target: Earth did the same on a nothing budget. In 1959 came The World, The Flesh and The Devil, a full-blown fantasy that stranded Harry Belafonte in an empty New York City. Its stylish ‘deserted & devastated’ look was established by early morning shoots and clever camera angles.
The Quiet Earth closely follows The World, The Flesh and The Devil, at least at the outset. Zac Hobson wakes up naked on his bed to discover he’s inherited an empty world, with all of New Zealand at his disposal. Previous fantasies made excuses for the absence of unpleasant rotting corpses; in On the Beach a character theorizes that doomed people hide themselves to die, like dogs and cats. In The Quiet Earth living things just disappear, leaving empty planes to crash (Zac comes upon a convincing wreckage site) and cars to collide. People vanish from their beds and babies from their bassinets, leaving their blankets wrapped around nothing at all.
The movies in this subgenre are most effective in the early stages, following the lost individual as he roams among the empty streets and abandoned vehicles of his new environment. The Quiet Earth is better than most thanks to Bruno Lawrence’s intriguing performance. He starts to flip out, imagining that he’s God. He goes nuts for a while and dresses in a woman’s clothes, perhaps having slipped his gears over the notion of never seeing a living woman again. We eventually discover that his anguish over what has happened is complicated by a sense of personal culpability.
(spoiler) Zac is a dissenting member of a scientific team that cooked up ‘Project Flashlight,’ an alignment of satellite dishes to create a power grid that might do things like power aircraft in flight. In a development anticipating elements of Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World, Zac’s colleagues forge ahead even though their American partners have been withholding information about the risks. Fearing that the balance of matter and energy in the universe will be disrupted, Zac retreats to his house to commit suicide rather than find out what will happen.
Project Flashlight shifts the entire universe into a new dimension, leaving behind everything alive, even bugs. Zac is the only living creature around because he was in the process of dying just as the ‘reality shift’ took place. It looks as if his team has obliterated all life on Earth. Either that, or everyone else has taken a divergent fork into an alternate reality.
At this point The Quiet Earth decides to follow a story path that didn’t work well for earlier movies. In The World, The Flesh and The Devil Harry Belafonte finds first a surviving female (Inger Stevens) and then a male competitor (Mel Ferrer) and the rest of the movie becomes a competition for the twin crown of Alpha Male and Racial Winner. The next year, Roger Corman envisioned a similar love triangle as a struggle to possess voluptuous Betsy Jones-Moreland, The Last Woman on Earth. In both instances the science fiction aspects were dropped in favor of philosophical speechmaking.
The Quiet Earth continues to develop its sci-fi premise, with mixed results. Post-apocalyptic Tarzan Zac finds a Jane in Joanne (Alison Routledge), a good-looking blonde who happened to electrocute herself with a hair dryer just as the Flashlight effect disturbed the time-space continuum. They enjoy a celebratory fling together. Then a third wheel shows up in Api (Pete Smith), a Maori truck driver who was in the process of being strangled at the appointed cosmic event. Just as in The Last Woman on Earth, a love triangle forms, but Zac doesn’t feel like competing. He’s also preoccupied by the need to alter the big experiment. Instruments tell him that the experiment’s reality shift will either correct itself or shift once again, at a predictable moment only a few hours away. He decides that setting off a big explosion at the lab would have a beneficial effect; we don’t learn much more than that. The plot sputters to a finale with some unsatisfying action and murky character complications.
The conclusion comes straight from the Twilight Zone playbook, leaving us with a conceptual tease and no real answers. Zac walks on a weird beach with bizarre clouds and unfamiliar planets rising in the heavens, leading us to conclude that the experiment’s second burp has thrown Zac’s reality into yet another cosmic groove. If logic follows, both Joanne and Api have either been destroyed or been left stranded in another alternate limbo. Zac seems to have survived because he was again at the point of death when the shift occurred. Reality can be a real bummer when the eggheads screw around with stuff they don’t understand. Zac’s lonely fate reminds us of the bleak beach at the end of H.G. Wells’ novel of The Time Machine. It also has similarities with the supernatural conclusion of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond.
(spoilers finished) The Quiet Earth is clever and spectacular but dramatically incomplete. There aren’t that many revelations in Zac’s solitary adventure, even if it is fun to see him graduating from toy trains to a real one to satisfy his urge to play engineer. The underwritten dramatic triangle contains no great discoveries either. Zac, Joanne and Api are lost souls left with old personal concerns that prove as sticky as ever. Api can’t square himself with his tribal identity, Zac feels guilty for his part in upsetting the cosmos, and Joanne feels liberated by the situation.
Director Geoff Murphy moved to the U.S. in the ’90s to shoot mostly sequels; he’s the credited Second Unit Director on the three Lord of the Rings films. An earlier commentary by the film’s producer let us know that the ’empty Earth’ look wasn’t as tough to achieve as one might think as it’s a lot easier to clear away unwanted items in street scenes than it is to creatively fill them up. In Craig Harrison’s source book the depopulation of the Earth had something to do with fruit fly genes instead of radio physics. Whether achieved through radio waves or bug juice, the ‘reality shift’ concept is no longer a mind-stretcher. Back in the early 1990s, a Halloween episode of The Simpsons expressed perfectly the way science fiction revelations are quick to seem banal. Young Lisa Simpson isn’t at all impressed by a weird vortex to another dimension, floating in a hallway of the Simpson home. With a bored expression, she says, (para.) “Oh look. A break in the space-time continuum.”
Film Movement Classics’ Blu-ray of The Quiet Earth is sharper and cleaner than the old 2006 DVD; it also appears to be a new transfer. The colors are cool, with a few later scenes seeming to drift toward a greenish tinge, but that might be intentional. The many wide scenes of city streets, intersections and shopping malls seem more convincing because the view is kept wide. Zac drives right through the pedestrian area of one shopping mall. We really do believe that Zac is utterly alone. I think some digital finessing may have been applied to the final optical, with the fantasy view on the beach. It looks much better than it did on the old DVD. The filmmakers should have marketed that final image as a poster for college dorm rooms. I certainly would have wanted one.
The trailer on board has narration that says the film has been restored, so I assume it’s not the original cut from 1985. The disc does not carry English subtitles.
Film Movement’s main extra is a commentary with film critic Odie Henderson and astronomer / science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson. To our surprise, it’s an extremely casual track, with lots of dead air. They comment when something raises a point of interest, mostly just reacting to what they see on screen. Mr. Tyson’s thoughts on the film’s concept can’t go very far, because the ‘flashlight’ idea has no basis in science. But he does point out something that only an astronomer would know. The first shot in the film is of a rising sun, exaggerated with a long lens; as it rises it moves across the sky to the left. Tyson says this is correct because the sun only rises that way in the Southern Hemisphere — up in the U.S.A. the sun rises and moves to the right. I never thought of that.
Both commentators note that the first shot shows birds flying in front of the sun, when all animal life was supposed to have vanished. I suppose that puts The Quiet Earth on a par with Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters. In that show a scientist announces that the island is devoid of all life; Corman then cuts to images of sea birds and land crabs. Mr. Tyson says one more thing that completely zipped by me: plants are living things, but they’ve been transported to the alternate reality. Bring a scientist along, and no sketchy film premise is safe.
Closer analysis of the movie comes in an insert essay by Teresa Hefferman. She tells us more about the politics of the director and star, and underscores the film’s theme of scientists as ‘boys with toys,’ making new inventions for industry, rather than to benefit people.
I’m hanging on to my old Anchor Bay The Quiet Earth, disc, which has a commentary with the film’s writer/producer Sam Pillsbury. In addition to giving us facts about the filming, he reminds us that the filmmakers were making a political statement. He’s proud that New Zealand still retains its no-nuke policies. Nuclear-powered ships aren’t even welcome in their ports – a fact we’d never learn from the American media.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Quiet Earth
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: new trailer, commentary with Odie Henderson and Neil deGrasse Tyson; insert booklet with essay by Teresa Heffernan.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 28, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson