CULT CORNER: The Quiet Earth (1985)

It’s the end of the world as we know it in this little-seen post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick from New Zealand. 

Who made it?: Geoff Murphy (Director), Sam Pillsbury, Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence (Writers), Pillsbury, Don Reynolds (Producers), Cinepro.

Who’s in it?: Bruno Lawrence.

Tagline: “The creations of our mind should be a blessing, not a curse to mankind – Albert Einstein.”

IMDb rating: 6.8/10.

There are only so many truly cult movies that have remained obscure in the digital age, especially in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix have made a lot of these overlooked VHS gems successful long after their theatrical releases. After sifting through titles like The Adventures of Buzaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984), you might eventually find The Quiet Earth, one of the New Zealand film community’s finest accomplishments; a contribution to the time-honoured “last man alive” formula that is ten times better than you have any right to expect.

Granted, this contribution to post-apocalyptic cinema isn’t original. It has antecedents in 1971′s The Omega Man (based on the novel I Am Legend) and, if you want to go really far back, The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959). But director Geoff Murphy made the absolute best of his hook. The Quiet Earth grabbed me as soon as the opening titles kicked-in over an intoxicating sunrise, and the grand score by John Charles immediately announces that this picture is anything but cheap trash.

Zac Hobson (co-writer Bruno Lawrence) awakens in his motel room one morning feeling a little worse for wear in a shot that Danny Boyle ripped-off wholesale in the similarly-themed 28 Days Later (2002). He soon discovers that he is alone… completely alone. The countryside and towns are inexplicably deserted, and there are no remains. It appears the human race has simply vanished without a trace. Slowly but surely, Zac begins to realise that it might have something to do with his scientific work on a government project called “Project Flashlight,” an attempt to create a global energy grid. As he comes to terms with his isolation, and the fact that he might be partly responsible for mass genocide, Zac goes round the twist…

The only problem with a film like this is that it’s incredibly easy to spoil. I have refrained from including the theatrical trailer above, as we usually do, because it ruins every single beat in the story. Whatever you do, don’t watch it – you’d be missing out on a science fiction tale of considerable merit. Even the main poster art ruins the final shot of the movie, so this is one of those recommendations that requires you to be vigilant when seeking it out. Thankfully, there is more than enough here to commend without spoiling the main surprises.

The Quiet Earth immediately deserves kudos for not replacing the human race with zombies, vampires or monsters. It steals liberally from films like Dawn of the Dead (1978), but mostly in their commentary on how human beings react to new-found freedom. The enemy here is loneliness. For the first forty minutes, Murphy and the incredibly gifted Lawrence tell us everything we need to know about Hobson. He starts out calm and collected as he tries to get to the bottom of his plight, and even begins to have fun with his god-like status, moving into a well-to-do neighbourhood because there’s no-one around to stop him. The fun doesn’t take long to deteriorate, however, and his descent into insanity is more terrifying than any infected goon trying to get at him.

This madness is the most interesting element in the film, and the scenes that live longest in the memory. Having totally lost his marbles, Zac dons a woman’s slip and bursts into a church with a shotgun. Crying out at a saviour that may not hear his prayers, he takes aim at an effigy of Christ and opens fire. His rampage provides some of the most potently-charged images I’ve ever seen on film. That includes the moment he puts the shotgun in his mouth, as a petrol station he destroyed explodes in the background. With his finger on the trigger, he suddenly snaps back to reality. Perhaps he is too scared to die, but I like to read the scene as a catharsis. Were it not for the disappearance of mankind, Zac Hobson might never have exorcised his  personal demons.

It’s at this point that the film begins to breakdown slightly, if not enough to ruin your enjoyment. If you’ve seen the recent adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, you probably know what I’m referring to. Zac isn’t quite alone – the names in the opening titles will key you into that, but I won’t say anything more on the matter. If you haven’t guessed already, The Quiet Earth should be viewed with as little prior knowledge as possible.

Murphy handles the story like a seasoned pro, even when things take a turn for the weird, introducing theories about alternate realities and metaphysical possibilities that make the whole thing resemble an elongated Twilight Zone episode. The director and his writers don’t spoon-feed the audience, and like the best speculative science fiction, The Quiet Earth leaves you to make up your own damn mind. That’s summed up best in a closing scene that hits you right in the gut with its ambiguous beauty. It would have gone down as one of the most baffling (and brilliant) codas in screen history if the aforementioned trailer hadn’t ruined it for 80s audiences.

The Quiet Earth is a fascinating watch that asks a multitude of questions. It is a character study that uses sci-fi trimmings to get its points across with beguiling simplicity. Murphy’s film is at once a damning portrait of the human race’s proclivity for self-destruction, and a celebration of our eternal need for companionship and love. It really makes you wonder what you’d do if you were the last soul alive, and that’s a storytelling gimmick that will never go out of fashion…

Best Scene

Convinced the world now revolves around him, Zac takes to the balcony of his palatial residence and proceeds to make a speech to a host of cardboard cut-outs of famous historical figures. Look, there’s Hitler next to Hitchcock! At this point, there’s little doubt that Mr. Hobson has gone cuckoo.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The Quiet Earth is actually based the one experience of an American tourist in New Zealand in the 1970s. New Zealanders always take the weekends off and sleep late. The tourist arrived in the center of Auckland on a Sunday morning and found it completely deserted. He later said he felt like the last man on Earth.
  • When Zac checks in at work he hits a few buttons and the monitor starts buzzing and repeatedly displays the words, “Response….Negative.” He is signaling all other stations in the worldwide grid to see if they are manned. The negative response tells him that everyone is gone in those countries, too.
  • The scene where Bruno Lawrence is aimlessly wandering the empty streets of the city blowing on a saxophone was an in-joke to those who knew him, as he had once stolen one when he was young, but later felt guilty and returned it.
  • Zac calls the energy grid, “Project Flashlight.” Ironically enough, there was an American defense project called “Operation Flashlight” around the same time as the film. The operation, however, involved low-yield atomic blasts, small enough to destroy a single room, but nothing else.
  • Lee Tamahori was an Assistant Director on the film, who went on to helm  films like Die Another Day (2002).
  • Director Geoff Murphy would never direct a better film than The Quiet Earth. His subsequent credits include Young Guns II (1990), Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995), and Fortress 2 (2000). He was also the second unit director on The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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