ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Quiet Earth (1985) dir: Geoff Murphy Blu Ray (Arrow)
The last remnants of humanity
Scientist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) wakes up one morning and heads to the research station where he works. However, he quickly discovers that all of the people who would normally be around him seem to have disappeared into thin air. A gas station he stops at to fill his car is left unattended. Vehicles are left abandoned on the road. A house which he knocks at the door of is revealed to be completely empty. He also discovers the smoldering wreckage of an airliner which has fallen out of the sky. When he eventually enters the lab, he finds that there is nobody there either. When he sends signals out to other labs across the world, he receives no responses from any of them. It appears that a scientific experiment which he has been involved with, known as Project Flashlight, has wiped out most of humanity.
Once the circumstances of his new reality have set in, Zac initially relishes his new-found freedom and boundless wealth. On the downside, his sense of loneliness begins to take a heavy toll on his sanity. Eventually, he discovers another two survivors: Joanne (Alison Routledge) and Api (Pete Smith). However, the initial sense of euphoria in finding out that he is no longer alone in the world begins to wear off as the inherent frictions of human relationships set in. To make matters worse, the various scientific measurements that he carries out on the phenomenon reveal some worrying new conclusions.
Watch a trailer:
Another unsung classic from New Zealand
As with Sleeping Dogs and Smash Palace, this adaptation of Craig Harrison’s sci-fi novel is another milestone of New Zealand cinema. Also in common with those two films, it has remained relatively little seen outside of its country of origin but has been very positively received by most of those who have.
The Quiet Earth is at its most cinematically striking during its first third. The depiction of a world which has suddenly emptied of people is truly haunting, with those picturesque New Zealand landscapes stretching out to provide a vast sense of desolation, the roads littered with abandoned cars, a home broken into where a tray of breakfast lies abandoned on an empty bed, and the remnants of an airliner are revealed within a huge pile of burning rubble.
The initially almost dialogue-free approach soon gives way to Bruno Lawrence’s increasingly unhinged antics. He brings a genuine (possibly semi-improvised) spontaneity to his scenes where he wears dons a woman’s nightie, impersonates two different people playing snooker against each other, blasts away at televisions with his shotgun and plays at being ruler of the world from the balcony of a mansion which he has appropriated, to an audience of cardboard cutouts of such figures as Adolf Hitler and Bob Marley. As a study of the effects that isolation has on the human psyche, it’s both funny and chilling.
However, since the idea of one man using the world as a huge playset has rather limited mileage as a storyline concept, it’s only a matter of time before the plot has to introduce other human beings into the equation. While the second and third acts don’t quite conjure up the same wild momentum, they are just as interesting in their own way as they ground the film with a philosophical dimension. The consequences of playing God, the concept of how the bonds of love are chosen and formed between people, and the pluses and minuses of loneliness versus relationships are amongst the things discussed here - both in the exchanges of dialogue and the eventual paths these characters take. Alison Routledge gives a restrained, genteel performance as a sensitive and emotionally intelligent woman. Maori actor Pete Smith plays a third character who initially appears to be set up as an antagonist. However, it quickly becomes clear that his arc is much more complex, ultimately leading to a guilt-tainted payoff.
It all concludes with a suspenseful, explosive climax and a hauntingly strange, poetic final image. The Quiet Earth is New Zealand’s answer to cerebral science fiction films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Silent Running (1972). Unlike those, however, it tempers the cerebral sobriety with a playful sense of fun and self-awareness. It really deserves to be more widely known about outside of its modest but dedicated cult following.
Runtime: 91 mins
Dir: Geoff Murphy
Script: Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence, Sam Pillsbury, from a novel by Craig Harrison
Starring: Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge, Pete Smith, Anzac Wallace
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The film’s visuals are astonishingly well-rendered in this version, vividly capturing New Zealand’s distinctively burnt orange sunny vibe. Every shot looks perfect. John Charles’ soaring orchestral soundtrack is equally, majestically unblemished here.
Audio Commentary by Travis Crawford
The film critic and programmer discusses the New Zealand film industry, the lives and careers of the various people involved in The Quiet Earth and the differences between the film and the book. Sam Pillsbury (who co-produced, co-wrote and makes a brief cameo as a corpse) was originally going to direct but felt that he wouldn’t have been able to complete the film before the New Zealand Film Commission tax breaks expired - so he handed it over to the more experienced Geoff Murphy. Pillsbury now runs a wine company in Arizona. Murphy went on to make some critically panned Hollywood films during the 1990s (such as Freejack and Under Siege 2: Dark Territory) and subsequently became largely relegated to 2nd unit work, the most significant being on fellow New Zealander Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Actor Bruno Lawrence was a close friend of Murphy since adolescence. However, they fell out 5 years before Lawrence sadly passed away from terminal lung cancer, at the age of 54. They never reconciled and Murphy didn’t even attend they actor’s Tangi (Māori) funeral.
SPOILER WARNING! Crawford divulges one particularly engrossing piece of nerdish trivia. It is revealed during the film that the three main characters survived the rapture-like event by dying at the exact split second when it occurred. Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson calculated that, considering the world’s population at the time when the film was made, only 8 people on the planet would have survived given the likelihood of this occurrence. However, in the film, 5 people in total are seen to have lived through it (2 of which were implied to have been subsequently killed in a motor vehicle accident) - all within the rather small country of New Zealand. The likelihood of all of them surviving within such close proximity to each other is, therefore, extremely unlikely.
Last Man Standing
A brand new 2018 interview with author and film scholar Kim Newman, who is as lively, eccentric and knowledgable as ever. He talks about the film’s forebears in post-apocalyptic and what he terms “deserted city” science fiction. He cites its 19th literary origins in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and Richard Jeffries’ After London. He pinpoints the first example in cinema as René Clair’s Paris Qui Dort (1924) which Alex Garland and Danny Boyle have cited as an influence on 28 Days Later (2002). The direct antecedent for The Quiet Earth, meanwhile is Ranald MacDougall’s film The World, The Flesh, The Devil (1959). It’s an extra that’s well worth the time.
What is The Quiet Earth?
While the film version of The Quiet Earth leaves its deeper meanings somewhat open to interpretation Critic Bryan Reesman lists a few of the more common theories in this worthy, if somewhat dry, video essay.
The other extras here are an image gallery, theatrical trailer and enclosed booklet.
It’s a superb release of a rather overlooked sci-fi classic. As with Arrow’s other recent releases from this far-flung corner of the world, it proves that there’s more to New Zealand cinema than Peter Jackson and Taika Waititi.