The Quiet Earth (1985)

I have become god; look at my kingdom and despair. Bruno Lawrence stars in “The Quiet Earth.”

Directed by Geoff Murphy. Screeplay by Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence, Sam Pillsbury; based on the novel by Craig Harrison. Produced by Sam Pillsbury, Don Reynolds. Music by John Charles. Photographed by James Bartle. Edited by Michael Horton. Production designed by Josephine Ford. Starring Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge, Pete Smith.

It’s curious how, from the perspective of most storytellers, the end of the world just plain isn’t enough. You can tell an apocalypse story as a comedy (as this weekend’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World attempts to do), but if you’re venturing into a dramatic story about civilization’s end, there’s just not enough of a third act to hitch your wagon to. So that’s when the zombies come in, or, in less popular variations, the robots or genetically-engineered viruses, or the devil. Or whatever. The only film I’ve ever seen the honestly deals with the human side of an apocalypse, from start to finish, is 1998’s Last Night by Don MacKellar, a Canadian film in which a half-dozen unconnected people prepare for the end of the world by…well, being themselves, essentially. This is probably how the world would end, after all. Not with heroics or monsters, but with existential discussions with strangers.

The Quiet Earth, a New Zealand production, attempts to do some of the same things, with limited success. It’s not an entirely successful film, but it’s an intriguing one and worth seeing. It captures the aimless rambling of a post-apocalyptic journey, as a man (Bruno Lawrence) wakes up in a seedy motel and discovers that he   appears to be the only one left on earth. He descends into fear, then decadence, then suicidal madness, and eventual acceptance, and his experiences hit a raw (and rare) nerve, fully addressing the question of what an average person would do if left to his own devices on Earth. It’s quite extraordinary. The film falters when it imports other characters into this narrative on its way to an arbitrary conclusion, because while the film’s scenes of vacant cityscapes cast a spell, neither the dialogue or plotting is a real strength, and the movie falls apart just a little when those things take over.

The man, Zac, is a scientist, which is a refreshing change of pace from the usual formula, which is to make the main character a contrived everyman who can transform into an action hero. Zac is brilliant, balding, and unhappy, and his condition will inform the overall narrative in interesting ways. We empathize with Zac even if we don’t understand his job, because his shock in the first act of The Quiet Earth is so visceral. As he ventures outside of his bed and into the world, he gradually begins to observe that something is seriously wrong: all buildings and structures are preserved, but every person is gone. Tea kettles sit burning on stoves. Cars are stopped all over the road. One office building has turned to rubble because a plane has crashed right into it. At his own laboratory, he finds disturbing implications that his own co-workers might have been partially responsible for whatever this is.

Armed with this knowledge, Zac does what probably any person would do: he goes mad. He moves into a mansion and serves himself tea on a silver tray, parodying a lifestyle that, to be sure, no longer exists. He barges into a church with a shotgun and destroys the crucifix on display, declaring himself the new god of an empty kingdom. So desperate for human companionship is he that he puts on a slip and walks around barefoot, parading through empty stadiums and mini-marts. Later he takes a bulldozer and starts destroying things just because he can, and contemplates ending his life with a shotgun shell to the mouth. Even at his lowest point, though, Zac pauses his destructive rampage to check on a crushed baby carriage, just to make sure. He may be abusing his sandbox, but he still has a degree of sympathy.

The opening passages here strike a perfect note. The sense of desolation is wonderfully evoked by the film’s photography, which is impressive in its scope and scale, as endless city streets are eerily vacant. The production strategies for shutting down so many places is staggering to contemplate. The film has an creepy confidence with the way it charts Zac’s descend into insanity, which at times has the authority and completeness of a classic Twilight Zone episode. Unfortunately, as is customary with stories about a man wandering the apocalypse, there has to be a woman. And soon, another man, which creates a love triangle of dispiriting banality.

The woman is Joanne (Alison Routledge), and although she approaches Zac with weapon drawn, she eventually lowers her guard. They become partners in efforts to determine the nature of the apocalypse, and they fall into bed together with a minimum of fuss, which seems right. It is right when Zac starts to make breakthroughs about what is going on that a third person enters the picture, Api (Pete Smith). He’s rough, more capable with a gun, and more aggressive, but he has a good heart, and the three form an unlikely bond. Why did these three people survive and no one else? The film has an answer for that, and it stabs at some unexpectedly affecting places.

It’s actually not the introduction of other characters that brings The Quiet Earth down a peg, to be honest. Instead, it’s the fact that the eventually the plot takes a detour through boring arguments that are meant to pay off on the film’s stated themes of playing god and loneliness, but I don’t think they do. The arguments between our three heroes aren’t noble enough to make us involved, and nor are they petty enough to imply a pessimistic worldview for how humans would still go through the same stuff no matter how few of them were left. Like the series The Walking Dead, The Quiet Earth does an excellent job of establishing a tone and then is unconvincing in applying its character dynamics, preferring to paint with broad strokes and a messy brush.

Eventually, Zac starts to see a threat in Api, both physically and romantically, and Joanne seems to switch allegiances midway through their misadventures, although a smart woman like Joanne should know that, if she’s being depended on to repopulate the species, then when it compiling a list of potential sperm donors, it helps to keep your options open. All of this leads to a conclusion that counts on a huge explosion that will effectively end the vague threat that they’re under, but it feels like a writer grasping at straws for how to resolve a story that, by definition, should be absent of resolution. The film concludes with a startling final shot that I will not reveal, except to say it gets at the heart of what science fiction can deliver: humility, awe, wonder. It makes the soap-opera-grade theatrics that took us here all the more irritating.

It sounds like I’m angry at The Quiet Earth, and I’m really not. Fishy plotting and poor characterizations aside, there’s a lot to recommend about it, including the performances and the sense of awful longing it provides in the opening passages. I like apocalypse stories, because the enhance a sense of economy. By limiting characters and limiting resources, every relationship is important, and every tool is crucial, and the effect feels like a chess game played purposefully with a minimum of moves. And it helps to know that, if the end of the world ever did come, as a species we would be survived not by athletes or movie stars, but by schlubs and losers.

Plus, there’s an exchange in it that really needs to be repeated:

Joanne: I wouldn’t ride with you if you were the last man on Earth.

Api (driving off to chase Zac, and possibly to kill him): I’m working on it.

I still don’t know if that’s the worst exchange in the movie or the best.

GRADE: B-

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