“God blinked, and the whole world disappeared.”
The post apocalyptic thriller – a staple product of contemporary Hollywood cinema. There’s something filmmakers (and I guess audiences) love about a desolate character making their way through the rubble after a catastrophic event. It raises the stakes and allows for some great psychological thrills. While films such as Mad Max or The Terminator takes an action-packed approach to this subject-matter, 1985 New Zealand flick The Quiet Earth is more of a sci-fi approach to the doomsday scenario with innovative ideas and a smart story from start to finish.
Fans of the 2007 hit I Am Legend will be familiar with the last man on Earth plot structure. A guy wakes up to find that there is seemingly nobody left on the planet. In the case of The Quiet Earth, it is due to a scientific experiment gone wrong. The details of it all are a bit hokey, but it’s a nice setup for some strong character development and an engaging plot. While I Am Legend focused more on finding a cure and the heartbreak of the catastrophe, The Quiet Earth is a bit more lighthearted. There’s still a great deal of drama, but not without a heavy comedic touch to balance it out. Protagonist Zac Hobson (played by Bruno Lawrence) quickly assumes the position of King of the World and engages in insane revelry once he loses hope in finding other survivors. I’ve always wanted to see a well-done scene like this, where a character uses the whole world as their toy box without consequence. This is some of the strongest work in the film, the solo performance of Bruno Lawrence coping with his loneliness and nearing suicide in the despair and hopelessness of the situation. It sucks you right into the movie and gets you invested in the character.
Eventually, though, the film introduces fellow survivors Joanne and Api (played by Alison Routledge and Pete Smith respectively). From then on, the film is a tad weaker, but it was certainly necessary for plot development, and The Quiet Earth still allows us plenty of time to enjoy the last man on Earth part of the movie. Both Routledge and Smith bring unique character choices that contrast Lawrence well. I wasn’t too sure how I felt about the love triangle at first, but I ended up really liking it. I was hoping they wouldn’t let it dominate the story, which it did towards the end, but it is written well enough to be emotionally compelling and ultimately pretty tragic for the odd man out. The sci-fi mumbo jumbo is eye-rolling at times and often just serves to convenience the story, but I think it’s forgivable, and the script has enough great surprises to make up for its faults. The ending is also completely bonkers in the best sort of way.
Something I really liked about The Quiet Earth was how easy it was to get into. The writing always kept it simple but offbeat, and the stakes remained high enough without becoming melodramatic as dystopian work often does. All three characters were sympathetic and believable with distinct personalities, and this movie is just a strong example of good science fiction. I would rather have some poorly explained science elements that allow for deep character exploration than a heap of exposition which bores the audience to tears. (Yeah, that’s right Nolan. Nobody thinks you’re smart. And while you’re reading this, don’t you dare let them remake Memento.)
This may be the real treasure in The Quiet Earth, that it feels like a breath of fresh air from conventional science fiction. It has tons of genuine humor and some really great performances. I’m of the opinion that science fiction writers get too caught up in the idea they’re conveying, the concept or framing device itself, as opposed to what’s actually happening to the characters. The Quiet Earth had me smiling constantly for some creative little moments that demonstrated the talent of director Geoff Murphy, who would go on to do some cinematic work with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This may be a matter of preference, but I like to see strong characters more than I like to see cool science. For those who prefer the latter, there are many other movies you’ll enjoy. Personally, I’m able to forgive The Quiet Earth for some of its faults because I really had a fun time with it, but I wouldn’t think less anyone who didn’t like the movie. It’s clearly not for everyone.
While I wouldn’t call it one of the greatest in science fiction, The Quiet Earth takes a fun approach to the last man on Earth formula and to the genre as a whole. It’s easy to dive right into this movie, and I would encourage you to do so if it’s something that interests you. I think this type of film could easily be jammed with boring tropes and waste real creative potential, but Geoff Murphy manages to capture some great moments out of his setup. It’s a film that left me amused and impressed, and it’s one that I hope to watch again someday.
Films Left to Watch: 956