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Quiet Earth, The
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by MP Bartley

"Solitude, sweet solitude."
4 stars

You could be forgiven for thinking that the New Zealand film industry begins and ends with Peter Jackson - after all, it's rare that one director dominates Hollywood from a relatively small country. But, for those wanting to find other good examples of New Zealand talent, this sci-fi flick from Geoffrey Murphy is a minor gem (and trivia fans should stick around to the end credits to see a certain Lee Tamahori listed as an assistant director).

The notion of waking up to find yourself the last man on earth is one that has always been played with and explored within film.
From 'The Omega Man' to '28 Days Later' and to some extent 'Cast Away', it's a bold concept with both exciting and terrifying consequences.

After all, who hasn't imagined just what they would do if the world was their playground, with no sense of responsibility and no judgement and laws from anyone else? But equally, what happens when that initial euphoria fades and you have to face up to the utter desolation and isolation that your life will entail?

These are questions that face Zac (Bruno Lawrence) when he awakes to find the earth utterly and totally abandoned. Buildings still stand, the electricity still works, but everyone else has quite simply vanished. It's a situation complicated for Zac, because he has bad feeling he helped to cause it, as the energy project he was working on at the nearby scientific base had been running dangerously out of control.

The difference that sets 'The Quiet Earth' apart from similar films, is that Murphy doesn't overload an already eerie situation with unnecessary baggage. Whereas the above examples such as 'The Omega Man' or '28 Days Later' complicate the film with hordes of ravenous vampires or zombies responsible for the desolate cities, 'The Quiet Earth' takes a more subtle, more affecting approach. This isn't a huge titanic struggle for life and death, it's a simple tale of one man trying to work out just what the hell to do with himself with the whole planet belonging to just him. This leads to a combination of witty and sad vignettes as Zac takes over the best hotels, plays God and emperor to a self-created audience and embarks on senseless, yet hugely satisfying, destruction of his surroundinsg. These are all elements of behaviour that are completely relateable - wouldn't you do the same with no-one to answer to?

Of course, a glance at the above cast list or the dvd box will reveal that Zac isn't alone for the whole movie. Not to give away too much, but he's eventually joined by Joanne (Alison Routledge) and Api (Pete Smith) who have also mysteriously survived. But again, Murphy doesn't go down the obvious route of making one of them a psychotic danger to the others. He instead crafts a much more interesting drama and triangle between the characters - after all, if you were one of the only two surviving men then the instinct to procreate would be pretty strong, but this is complicated both by Joanne's preference for only one of them and Zac's guilt for the whole situation. This isn't a sci-fi film stuffed with typical sci-fi generic conventions, it's a sci-fi situation with realistic characters.

It's rather obviously a cheap production, but then it doesn't need to look massively expensive. Simple shots of unhabited cities are spooky enough for a modern audience and Murphy captures this running unease perfectly. There's no need to garnish this set-up with unneeded style - in a situation like this, everything would look the same, but empty - and it's this canny choice by Murphy that gives 'The Quiet Earth' its melancholic resonance.

Lawrence, Routledge and Smith certainly look the part as ordinary folks - leaving the only survivors as Heston or Schwarzenegger types would seriously undermine the dramatic realism - but it's only Lawrence who has the chops to carry off the material. Routledge and Smith in particular are wooden, and it's no surprise that the first half of the film, with Lawrence by himself, is the most affecting and intriguing. But the material and set-up itself is so carefully layered and constructed that the odd shaky line-reading here and there isn't enough to stifle the drama.

'The Quiet Earth' is one most likely to be found playing in the midnight hours on some obscure cable channel, and is one worth staying up for. It also ends on a very striking note, with the final image being both beautiful and hugely perplexing - anyone who has any idea what it means can send me an answer on a postcard.

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originally posted: 05/04/06 19:45:47
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User Comments

3/28/03 Matt Thiel Very good Last Man On Earth story, but what a shitty ending. Sigh... 4 stars
1/05/03 Knut Torgersen Weirdo film with a weirdo ending - I like it! 5 stars
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  02-Jul-1985 (R)



Directed by
  Geoff Murphy

Written by
  Bill Baer
  Bruno Lawrence
  Sam Pillsbury

  Bruno Lawrence
  Alison Routledge
  Peter Smith

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