A man awakens one morning to find that he is the last man on Earth and sets out to tame his own sanity and discover the events that have altered the world.
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You may be scratching your head at the biographical information above. Why should you care about an obscure Kiwi (being of or from New Zealand) science fiction film from 20 plus years ago? Simple. It is a great film. Not only has it obviously influenced many contemporary films, but it also trumps these films on a variety of levels. Allow me to elaborate.
Prior to The Quiet Earth, Geoff Murphy made a handful of good films (Wild Man, Goodbye Pork Pie, UTU) in his native New Zealand. Shortly thereafter he helmed an unfortunate number of Hollywood films (Young Guns 2, Freejack, Under Siege 2, Fortress 2) that may be considered guilty pleasures at best. He was also called upon by fellow Kiwi director Peter Jackson to head up the second unit on all three Lord of the Rings films.
So what is the point of this little history lesson? Hollywood kills good directors (John Woo and Sam Raimi, prime examples).
But, I digress. Despite a lackluster couple of decades, Geoff Murphy does have a grand if only marginally well known legacy in The Quiet Earth. Science fiction and horror fans will recognize and appreciate the premise; Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) wakes up one day, goes through the motions like any and every other day, and slowly realizes that he is, inexplicably, the last person on earth. The scenario plays out basically as is expected but it is the manner of the presentation and plotting that make it remarkable.
Zac’s subtle and deliberate decline into the reality of his new position in the world leads to him swinging from disbelief to depression to mania to megalomania to acceptance and back to disbelief. The storytelling and character interaction allow for empathy without distraction and the science fiction elements are beautifully woven into the fabric of the drama so that the one doesn’t overshadow the other.
There are several mysteries involved in the story that are revealed with wonderful precision by the director through the subtlety of mood and movement, and the three main characters, whose dynamic, touches on Alfred Hitchcock and Shakespeare without any pretense. Zac, Joanne, and Api though meeting up well after the film’s concept is understood, make for great viewing as they come to terms with the new state of the world and continually struggle against the dual nature of this empty world and small remaining pockets of humanity.
Like any “last man on Earth” film, the human condition is put under the microscope in The Quiet Earth. Unlike the majority of other films that share this premise, it is not done with the assumption of fore-knowledge of the viewer. Despite a few flashbacks here and there or a few lines of narration, this type of film will focus solely on the human aspect and the environment is taken for granted, stagnant, and frequently pointless. The Quiet Earth on the other hand takes us not only through the process of Zac’s rationalizing the situation but also his endeavoring to alter his environment. We see the suburbs, the city, the outskirts, the forest, and all places in between. There is evolution and de-evolution at every step and it works.
This is not a flashy film. It is however a master stroke. It is unfortunate that this film has all but vanished into obscurity, along with its director but they both still exist and there’s always a second chance.