THE QUIET EARTH ****
Directed by Geoff Murphy. Starring Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge, Pete Smith, Anzac Wallace, Norman Fletcher. Sci-Fi, New Zealand, 91 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray by Arrow Video on 18th June 2018.
Post-apocalyptic movies have always held a fascination for audiences, from the action-packed wastelands of MAD MAX to the mutant zombie-infested streets of I AM LEGEND, but Geoff Murphy’s 1985 cult favourite THE QUIET EARTH offers up a slightly different take by being more cerebral and less adrenaline-pumping than most, and it is all the better for it.
The film begins in the way that most of these movies do with the main character, in this case Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence), waking up to extremely noticeable quiet and his alarm clock not working. From then on we follow Zac (or Dr. Zac Hobson, as he is professionally known and which comes into play when piecing together what has happened) as he makes his way around the city streets completely on his own, with no noise, no birds, no other people and, most notably, no corpses – everything just seems to have stopped and everyone seems to have vanished, even the bodies from a plane that has crashed nearby. Naturally, Zac does what anyone in this situation would do and decides that he can do whatever he likes, declaring himself God and going slightly mad until he discovers that he is not the only person left alive when Joanne (Alison Routledge) shows up. Her appearance brings Zac back to reality and the two roam the New Zealand countryside together trying to find other survivors, which they do in the form of Mauri Api (Pete Smith), presumably making these three the last surviving people in New Zealand and, potentially, the world.
What makes THE QUIET EARTH stand out from other ‘last person on Earth’ stories is that it doesn’t require the inclusion of mutants, zombies, vampires or marauding punks to give it a narrative as the way the characters and the finer details are written gives the film an intrigue and depth that may otherwise have been missed had the filmmakers gone for action and visceral thrills. Details like the fact that once Zac meets up with Joanne he dresses up for dinner and continues to wear a suit when not long before he was going loopy and wearing a woman’s nightdress show his humanity and sense of occasion; after all, if you woke up and found everyone else in the world gone then why would you need to dress up? The most interesting part of the film are the scenes where Zac is losing his mind, arranging cardboard cut-outs of culturally significant figures – Churchill, Hitler, Queen Elizabeth II – around him and talking to them (“You had your turn” he says to Hitler when he declares himself to be God), and the notion that total freedom without any form of interaction leads to madness and loss of identity comes across very strongly in Bruce Lawrence’s performance. So much so, in fact, that when Zac first meets Joanne and greets her with a tearful hug it is one of the most powerful and emotionally charged moments of the film.
Things take a turn, however, once Api comes into the picture and a different dynamic is introduced. With a nod to 1959s THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL, in which nuclear holocaust survivors Mel Ferrer, Inger Stevens and Harry Belafonte must try and get along despite increasing social, sexual and racial tensions, Api is the alpha male to Zac’s beta and the old saying about ‘three’s company’ certainly becomes relevant. The tone of the film shifts slightly here and although THE QUIET EARTH avoids going down the path of the two men turning on each other and fighting over the woman it does add a tension to the script that doesn’t really need to be there. Thankfully it doesn’t approach the seething conflict between the two men from any form of social angle but more of a territorial one and keeps it very underplayed, leading to a climax and ambiguous final shot that stick in the mind long after the credits have rolled.
Coming with a short featurette featuring author and critic Kim Newman giving a brief history of post-apocalyptic sci-fi literature and film, a detailed video essay by critic Bryan Reesman and an audio commentary by critic Travis Crawford, there is a lot to take in - both visually and metaphorically - from THE QUIET EARTH that one watch won’t cover and, luckily, going back for a second or third visit offers up equally as rewarding an experience as the first viewing. THE QUIET EARTH is considered a cult classic for a reason and this polished Arrow Video release certainly doesn’t do its reputation any harm at all.
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