Having just graduated, I find myself with a brief, eerie moment of free time as I look for work and contact schools. I’m in an awkward space between the last stage of my life and the next, and as a result I turned toward a movie where the main character finds himself in a world of uncertainty, where what he knew is gone and what he knows is shaky at best.
It’d be perfect for a double feature, but hey, I’ve got applications to do, so cut me some slack.
The Quiet Earth (1985)
The Plot: Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence), a scientist, wakes up one day to find that everyone else has vanished. He believes it has something to do with a project he was working on, Project Flashlight, which was an international attempt to build a global energy grid. He hangs around his new kingdom, the Quiet Earth, and eventually finds two companions: Joanne (Alison Routledge) and Api (Pete Smith). Together, the three attempt to live and discover what happened in order to prevent its reoccurrence.
The story for this movie has become, perhaps, cliche. Too many movies are “last man on earth” types. That being said, The Quiet Earth mostly feels fresh because it avoids tropes, and even when it does fall into them, it makes sure to maintain a focus on ideas rather than plot. For instance, I was glad to see a post-apocalyptic film that doesn’t focus exclusively on marauders attempting cannibalism, murder, and sexual assault. That element is essential to many movies (e.g. The Road), but has become more aligned with drama than character or thematic development due to its proliferation.
Instead, The Quiet Earth focuses on the profound loneliness of being potentially the last human being on Earth. When Zac begins to go a bit insane for the mundaneness of the day-to-day, we understand where he’s coming from. The first hug shared between Joanne and him, after both thought themselves to be the only survivors, is a moment of pure relief that many movies do not achieve. When Api shows up, we begin to understand why these three have made it thus far while so many others vanished, and as a result we see the contrast between the way people behave in social settings and when they are given freedom from those settings.
On top of that, there is a lot of nice imagery; The Quiet Earth is a fairly small production, but Kiwi director Geoff Murphy makes the most of his budget. We feel the space in this vast, empty area—both the area surrounding Zac, and the distance separating him and the other two as tensions rise. We begin to see the opportunities afforded to people when they are separated from society, but we also see the ways that people judge, mistreat, and misunderstand others based on preconceptions from those social norms. For instance, Zac treats Api, a Maori, with outright racism on occasion; with Joanne, there are streaks of objectification. People can escape societal issues, but the poisonous mindsets remain.
There are issues with this movie, largely that it struggles to decide if it wants to be an intimate drama on the relationships between these three people or a contemplative sci-fi flick about the nature of their survival. The pacing struggles as a result, and while it’s not entirely damning, it does make the film lose much of its intrigue in the second and third acts. The idea of Project Flashlight comes and goes too often, only appearing once more to push the plot a bit, or try to throw around some philosophy. Again, it’s not destructive to the film as a whole, but it does hold it back.
Overall, I’m quiet happy I got a chance to check out The Quiet Earth. It’s well-made and cleverly shot (shoutout to cinematographer James Bartle), and ultimately it’s a nice, restful film to sit down and watch during a period of turmoil. Like many great sci-fi movies, its ambiguity allows for multiplicity, and you can take away from it whatever is relevant to your current situation. I can’t say I will watch this movie again, but I’m glad that I did. Sometimes, you need a quiet Earth to work through your disquiet.