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THE QUIET EARTH (1985)

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"Zac Hobson, July 5th. One - there has been a malfunction in Project Flashlight. Two – it seems I am the only person left on Earth…."

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Director: Geoffrey Murphy

Starring: Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge, Peter Smith

Screenplay: Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence and Sam Pillsbury, based upon the novel by Craig Harrison

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Synopsis: A strange cosmic event occurs. Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) wakes in a motel room on the outskirts of Auckland to find a blazing sun high in the sky, though it is only 6.12 a.m. Zac turns on the radio, but hears only static, and when he tries to make a phone-call, it rings out. He dresses and heads for work as usual. Stopping for petrol, Zac finds the garage deserted. An abandoned coffee pot boils on the stove, while the men’s room, although locked from the inside, is unoccupied. Zac drives through the town, blowing the horn of his car, but sees no-one. Desperate, Zac breaks into a house. Water is pouring through the ceiling from an upstairs bathroom; the beds have been slept in; but no people are there. Further along the road, Zac comes upon an abandoned petrol truck. He tries using its radio to call for help, but there is no reply. Zac drives into Auckland. It is totally deserted. Climbing a hill, Zac sees a large fire. When he inspects the site, he finds that a plane has crashed, but there are no bodies. Zac drives to the Research Division of the Delenko Corporation, where he works: an extensive research facility with a full sized satellite dish on the roof. The facility, too, is deserted. Inside, Zac finds a computer print-out indicating that something called Project Flashlight is proceeding. Beginning to panic, Zac admits himself into a high security area below ground. A computer screen readout announces that Operation Flashlight is complete. Inside a room labelled Grid Control, Zac is momentarily thrilled to see another human being – then realises that his companion is dead; dead, and horribly disfigured. The facility’s automatic emergency system activates as the levels of radiation suddenly escalate. As there is no-one in administration, Zac is trapped. In order to escape, he rigs a homemade bomb using a blowtorch and some oxygen cylinders. Taking cover, Zac plays back the last message he recorded on his personal dictator, in which he voiced his belief that the people in charge of the Delenko Corporation were withholding vital information from himself and his colleagues. A huge explosion rips through the facility, allowing Zac to reach the outside. He goes to a radio station, and sets up a constant broadcast of his name, address and phone number. Five days later, however, there has been no response. Zac moves into a mansion, and for some time indulges himself by living in luxury and stealing everything he ever wanted to own. Then his mind begins to deteriorate. He talks to himself constantly, and dresses in women’s clothes. Finally, rigging up a public address system and creating for himself an audience consisting of cardboard cutouts of historical figures and other famous people, Zac announces that as the only human being left alive, he is declaring himself President of "this quiet Earth"…..

Comments: The second collaboration between New Zealand director Geoff Murphy and the late, great Bruno Lawrence, The Quiet Earth is a disturbing examination of the aftermath of an apocalyptic event brought on entirely by human hubris. The first half of this film is brilliantly compelling. Suicidal scientist Zac Hobson wakes one day to find himself apparently the only person left on Earth. Zac’s journey from small town to suburbia to city is a wonderfully shot sequence, the full horror of his situation being slowly revealed in a series of scenes both comic (the magazine dropped on the floor of the abandoned men’s room) and sinister (the discovery that someone has disappeared not just from their bed, but from beneath their breakfast tray). The nightmare is complete when Zac must confront the fact that the project being worked upon by himself and his colleagues is responsible for the catastrophe that has overtaken humanity.

As Zac struggles to come to terms with his appalling complicity, and the possibility of a lifetime spent utterly alone, his mind begins to deteriorate under a weight it simply cannot bear. The scenes that follow are the best in the film. Initially, Zac is almost paralysed, hiding inside his house and drinking non-stop as he waits with fading hope for someone to reply to his broadcasted message. Then he decides to make the best of things by taking over a luxurious mansion, gleefully robbing a mall in order to furnish his new home with anything that takes his fancy (including, bizarrely, about a dozen now useless televisions, and a model moa), and acting out other fantasies, such as driving the trains. But Zac’s enjoyment of his indulgent lifestyle is shortlived. His gnawing guilt and his total isolation begin to drive him into madness. This culminates in a trio of astonishing scenes. The first is Zac’s trip into megalomania as, dressed like Caesar, he announces that he is seizing supreme executive power as President of the entire world. His admiring cardboard audience, which includes Adolph Hitler, Queen Elizabeth, Richard Nixon and the Pope (earlier on, Zac brushed Hitler aside with the jeer, "You had your chance."), bursts into enthusiastic cheering and applause, courtesy of a jury-rigged PA system. Hard on the heels of this follows Zac’s invasion of a church, as he waves a shotgun and demands that God show Himself. ("If You don’t come out," Zac bellows, levelling his gun at a life-sized statue of Jesus Christ, "I’ll shoot the kid!") Finally, teetering on the brink of complete mental collapse, Zac goes on a rampage of utterly pointless destruction (for some time, Zac has been clad in nothing but a woman’s slip – as he commits his acts of mindless violence, one strap of it tears away, leaving him wearing something that looks suspiciously like the classical skin-over-one-shoulder caveman outfit), only to be jerked back into sanity by the realisation that he has just run over a pram that may not have been empty. Suicide threatens, but Zac pulls back at the last instant, then runs naked into the ocean for a swim that is clearly a symbolic cleansing of his sins.

Bruno Lawrence is absolutely riveting throughout these scenes, and The Quiet Earth may well have been a stronger film had it continued its narrow focus upon the effects of a total catastrophe upon the mind of a single human being. However, instead of this, the second half of the film introduces a number of additional plot threads which, while interesting, lack the power and intensity of Zac’s solitary reign.

First of all, inevitably, it is revealed that Zac is not the only survivor of the catastrophe – or "The Effect" as it is subsequently called. Even more inevitably – and this is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the entire film – the other people that Zac encounters are a white woman and a black man. No sooner has Zac emerged from his baptismal plunge than he is rewarded with the materialisation of a young woman called Joanne. (Alison Routledge gets a lovely entrance when she appears from nowhere pointing a large gun at Zac – which she then tosses away with a shrug and a dead-pan, "It isn’t real.") The initial scenes between the two are delicately handled and quite touching, as they each revel in the simple joys of human companionship; and in time they become lovers. Their brief idyll is swiftly disrupted when Zac is ambushed on the streets of Auckland by the third point of the triangle, a Maori man called Api. Zac is forced to introduce him to Joanne, and the situation is immediately complicated when she finds herself strongly attracted to the newcomer. For a while, it seems as though The Quiet Earth is in danger of deteriorating into a re-make of The World, The Flesh And The Devil; but to its credit, it manages to find a few new twists in its stock situation. Conflict does arise between the two men, but it is Api who is the aggressor, insisting upon reading motivations into Zac’s actions that do not exist. Zac, on the other hand, though hurt by Joanne’s defection, is sadly resigned rather than angry, and more concerned with what his scientific equipment is telling him – namely, that the catastrophic Effect may be about to happen again.

It is here that The Quiet Earth becomes truly problematical. While Zac was alone, there was no need for words. The situation in which he found himself was all the more terrifying for being so mysterious. However, with the arrival of Joanne and Api, it becomes necessary to verbalise everything, including why they alone survived, and of course The Effect itself. Obviously, the simultaneous disappearance of 99.99% of the world’s population cannot be satisfactorily accounted for. As a supreme nightmare, the image of the deserted world works beautifully; as a real event that can be rationally explained, it is absurd. The film’s attempt to provide, not just an explanation, but one tricked up in pseudo-scientific jargon, is a major misstep. The film’s other main shortcoming, which occurs concurrently, is that its political agenda becomes rather too obvious. When Zac is explaining The Effect to Joanne and Api, we learn that the people who are really responsible are "the Americans". It was "the Americans" who began tampering with natural forces they couldn’t control, "the Americans" who refused to confide fully in their collaborators, thus ultimately bringing about The Effect. This apportioning of blame, particularly in such a sweeping way, trivialises the catastrophe that has occurred. (Heavy-handed as this section of the film is, it should perhaps be pointed that The Quiet Earth was made at a time not just of increased international tensions, but shortly after the clash between America and New Zealand over the latter’s decision to place a blanket ban upon nuclear-powered vessels and ships carrying nuclear material entering its waters. It is not, therefore, altogether surprising that the film chooses to finger-point so blatantly. And besides, I have to admit that it is rather amusing to hear "the Americans" being so blithely blamed for everything, just the way "the Communists" or "the Russians" usually were.)

During the final section of the film, Zac once again becomes the focus, and the story regains some of its power. Convinced that The Effect is about to happen again, and that it will result in the destruction of the planet, Zac sets about trying to find a way of averting this final disaster. The irony of the situation, of course, is that for all Zac knows, there may in practical terms be no-one to save the Earth for. But so powerful are his feelings of guilt for what has occurred that he is driven to make one final, supreme act of expiation. The ending of the film is ambiguous in the extreme. Zac is – taken up? rescued? killed? It is impossible to say, as it is left uncertain whether the final scene sees him on another planet, in another dimension, or in heaven or hell. The only thing that is clear is that his last act has brought him, not redemption, but the one thing that he feared more than anything else: complete and utter isolation.

The Quiet Earth is a consistently interesting film. The first half is thoroughly compelling, the second half a disappointment by comparison, yet still absorbing. Bruno Lawrence is excellent as Zac. Neither Alison Routledge nor Peter Smith can match his performance, but both of them are good, and are allowed some intriguing character moments. Their performances, however, are occasionally hampered by the didactic nature of some of their dialogue. Geoff Murphy’s direction is assured, and makes full use of the film’s settings, creating an eerie atmosphere. James Bartle’s cinematography is also an asset. As post-apocalyptic movies go, The Quiet Earth is recommended to viewers who prefer the cerebral to the sensational, and intellectually stimulating, character-driven stories to splashy special effects. (Oh, come on: there must be one or two of you out there….or am I all alone here…?)