MOVIE REVIEW: The Quiet Earth (1985, New Zealand)

A middle-aged man, Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence), awakens in bed wearing nothing more than an ID card on a lanyard. He doesn’t look in the best of shape; and neither does his alarm clock which seems to be taking far too long to go from 6:11 am to 6:12. He calls his job to let them know he’s going to be late, but gets no answer. When he does get on the road, the streets are strangely deserted. Vehicles are abandoned willy-nilly, and there’s no one at the gas station when he stops there. The bathroom door at the station is locked, but when he bends down to peek under it, he doesn’t see anyone inside. Growing more puzzled by the minute, he arrives at his job – which is at some sort of research facility. The place is completely empty, except for the badly burned corpse of another researcher at a control panel. Checking the facilities’ computers, he finds that something called “Project Flashlight” was activated at about 6:11 that morning – and he cannot get a single response from any of the project’s other installations around the world.

Just what the heck is going on?

“Last man on earth” stories go back at least to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. They tend to be rather dull affairs. After all, how many times can you depict the stark isolation of a single human being? Director Geoffrey Murphy tries it once more with this adaptation of Craig Harrison’ novel. I’ve not read the novel, so I cannot tell how well the movie does at adapting it for the screen. At least Murphy takes a pretty honest approach to how a typical person would behave in the circumstances.

Hobson drives around, looking for other survivors. He finds faucets left running, and trays of breakfast in bed with no bodies underneath them. When he comes upon a wrecked airplane, and finds a set of three empty seats that are almost perfectly intact, with their seatbelts still fastened, he pretty much loses it.

He starts painting signs around the city, telling anyone who might come across them where to find him. At a radio station, he records a similar message and sets it to broadcast on a constant loop. Then he waits… and starts going mad.

He plays trains – with real trains. He drives a bulldozer and wrecks buildings, just because he can. He moves out of his little house in the distant suburbs, and takes over a swanky house in the swankiest part of the city. He loots expensive stereo equipment and clothing from stores, since no one else will be using it.

Finally, in a project that must have taken quite a bit of time to set up (but then, he’s got all the time he needs), he “appears” on the balcony of his home wearing a ladies’ nightgown and a purple sheet, and addresses an audience of life-size cardboard cutouts of historical dictators and world leaders. Telling them that they’ve had their chance, he declares himself the Emperor of the World. Still dressed in that outfit, he storms into a nearby church carrying a shotgun. He lets loose with a rant at the crucifix over the altar, then blasts away at it. At last, with all his energy spent, he goes and takes a symbolically cleansing swim in the ocean and returns to get back to his daily existence.

It is at this point that many reviewers and commenters feel the movie takes a turn for the worse. While it is true that what we’ve seen so far is extremely powerful, it really isn’t enough for a full-length movie. The basic question of “What happened?” hasn’t even been touched upon yet. And it would be colossally boring to just have Hobson plodding about discovering the answer on his own. Even Defoe had to bring in other people after a while.

So a little while later, a woman named Joanne (Alison Routledge) shows up. Hobson is clearly relieved to have someone else around, and they quickly team up in a systematic search for other survivors. This also gives the screenwriters a chance to explain the situation. Hobson was a mid-level scientist on Project Flashlight, which was supposed to be some sort of beamed power thing. Think of something Nikola Tesla was dreaming about in his later years, and you’ll get the idea. But Hobson was having serious doubts about the safety of the project, and he’s afraid that what happened has proved him right.

In their explorations, Hobson and Joanne collect equipment from university labs. Hobson runs what tests he can, and becomes convinced that Project Flashlight is still running, and it is still causing strange things to happen at a just barely detectable level. And if it’s not stopped, what happened at 6:11 that morning could happen again.

Their life gets complicated when they find another survivor, Api (Peter Smith). Happily, the movie doesn’t dwell on the love triangle aspect. Sure, Joanne is more attracted to Api than to Hobson, but Hobson’s more worried about Project Flashlight. And seriously, what does it matter who she chooses? They aren’t going to repopulate the planet anytime soon. Hobson gets them to agree to help him destroy the facility where he worked, praying that will be enough to shut it off.

Whether it works or not; we aren’t told. The beautifully ambiguous final scene doesn’t answer any of the questions that the plot asks. Clues to the question of why these people survived are given; if you pay attention you’ll figure it out. Another puzzle is quickly mentioned in passing in just a few lines of dialogue. If you catch it, you’ll notice something that was never pointed out anywhere else in the movie but is bloody obvious when you stop to think on it (and adds even more to the mystery of the disappearances).

If you know me, you know that I love thought-provoking movies like this one. Far too many post-apocalyptic or “last man on earth” movies go big, focusing on the science or social aspects of the situation. Keeping it to a minimal cast, The Quiet Earth can focus on the personal aspects….and it is the better for it.

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