company: Skouras Pictures, Cinepro,
and Mr. Yellowbeard Productions Ltd. & Co.
country: New Zealand
director: Geoff Murphy
cast: Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge,
Pete Smith, Anzac Wallace,
Norman Fletcher, Tom Hyde
writers: Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence
and Sam Pillsbury (from the
1981 novel by Craig Harrison)
cinematographer: James Bartle
music: John Charles
special effects: Phil Addenbrook,
Ken Durey and Bruce Tooley
disc company: Starz / Anchor Bay
release date: June 13th, 2006
retail price: $24.98
disc details: Region 1 / NTSC / single layer
video: 1.85:1 / 16:9 / progressive
audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo (English)
supplements: audio commentary with
writer / producer Sam Pillsbury, trailer
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Plot: A scientist working on a top-secret international science experiment awakens to a world seemingly void of all human life other than himself.
This interesting bit of Kiwi sci-fi was quite a rarity not too long ago, only officially available in expensive and out-of-print CBS / Fox Home Video VHS and Laserdisc releases. Infrequent showings on television and a place on late 80s video store shelves ensured that the film, which had been quite a success in its native New Zealand at the time of release, would develop a healthy cult following. The steelbook DVD edition from Starz / Anchor Bay, now twice re-issued in standard packaging, was a long time coming, finally bringing The Quiet Earth mass market availability 21 years after its theatrical run. In retrospect, I suppose we should be happy that the film never achieved the same level of rarity as the Craig Harrison novel upon which it is based. My dependable Laserdisc cost all of $36, while a used copy of the novel is presently going for a cool $2,475 at Amazon¹.
Needless to say I’ve not read the source novel, though there is currently a fine and lengthy synopsis of its events up at Wikipedia. From that it’s pretty easy to ascertain that the novel and the film are two entirely different beasts, built from the same apocalyptic premise but quite divergent in both content and tone. There will be more on that later. Now I feel it necessary to warn that spoilers undoubtedly lie in this article’s future, and those concerned with such things proceed at their own peril.
The opening act of The Quiet Earth follows ex-scientist Zac Hobson (an exceptional Bruno Lawrence), who awakens one morning to discover that every other human being on the planet has seemingly vanished – an occurrence which may or may not be linked with his work on the top-secret international physics experiment Operation Flashlight. Hobson wanders a deserted Auckland, leaving traces of his own existence looping in radio stations and plastered on billboards. He takes his unique ‘last man’ position as an opportunity to enjoy the high life, moving into a stately mansion and cribbing a shopping mall of everything from television sets to a life-size statue of an emu. It can’t last, however, and soon Hobson takes a nose-dive into depression and outright insanity, dressing in a negligee, declaring himself President of “this quiet Earth” while cardboard cutouts of Nixon and Hitler look on, and going on a one-man shotgun rampage through Auckland.
This is, by far, the best part of the film. The late Bruno Lawrence’s performance is riveting stuff through and through, his emotions strong and entirely believable. A scene in which he surrounds his mansion with cardboard cutouts of celebrities from Churchill to Stalin to Nixon to Hitler should be utterly ludicrous, but Lawrence keeps us in the game, our disbelief effectively suspended, all the way. His shotgun rampage through an emptied Catholic church (Hobson literally hunting for God) has real visceral impact, with a bit of sardonic humor thrown in for good measure. “If you don’t come out I’ll shoot the kid!” he shouts, aiming his firearm at a large crucifix.
But as with all good things, Lawrence’s one-man show must too come to an end. The sight of the destruction he has wrought convinces Hobson to change his ways, settling into a comfortable and solitary existence just in time for the rather sudden introduction of Joanne (Allison Routledge). Young and red-headed and with all sorts of philosophical mumbo-jumbo rattling about in (and out of) her head, Joanne is the most problematic element of the picture and the means by which its terrifically effective early drama is forged into something far more mundane. It seems important to note that there is no female character in the spirit of Joanne to be found in Harrison’s novel, and her presence in the film all but necessitates that the narrative involve itself in the human sexual dynamic. Joanne and Hobson have a good time with one another, naturally, searching the city for survivors and developing a playful romantic entanglement that we know won’t last.
Seriously short-changed in the film is Api (Pete Smith), a Maori man and the only other substantial character of the novel. He is introduced late to the film and forced into the same uncomfortable slot occupied by Mel Ferrer in the very similar The World, The Flesh, and the Devil from 1959. The Quiet Earth’s dramatics stumble over many of the same pratfalls that hamper that film’s effectiveness, with Api and Hobson spending a good deal of time asserting their authority over the other before the tell-tale signs of the ‘Effect’, Hobson’s name for the world-altering event, begin to rear their ugly heads once more². The inevitability of a second occurrence of the ‘Effect’ turns into a standard deadline plot device, the three survivors rushing to Operation Flashlight’s domestic headquarters with a truckload of explosives in tow in a last-ditch effort to save what little remains of humanity.
The scripting, primarily by producer Sam Pillsbury and Bill Baer, really bungles the scientific angle in the second and third acts, the growing need for explanation resulting in sillier and sillier postulations about the post-apocalyptic world. The fact that all three of the survivor’s died at the moment the ‘Effect’ first happened goes effectively nowhere, and Hobson’s concerns about a pulsating sun aren’t particularly convincing. Hints at supernatural (God blinked) or psychological (Hobson is imagining the whole affair) origins for the ‘Effect’ further confuse the otherwise straight sci-fi narrative, but are more interesting than the science offered. A cryptic finale returns the film to Hobson’s lone perspective, when the group’s assault on the Operation Flashlight HQ becomes a suicide mission. Hobson pushes the button and obliterates the operation, only to find himself in a place entirely alien (unfortunately pictured in pretty much every bit of advertising art for the film). Was the ‘Effect’ the result of Operation Flashlight? Was it all in Hobson’s mind? Is he in Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, or some alternate reality? It’s an answers-free conclusion, the only certainty being that Hobson is completely alone.
It’s a haunting image, with a Saturn-like planet rising over the horizon behind tufts of unearthly clouds as Hobson watches, and nearly enough to make all of The Quiet Earth‘s faults worthwhile even after the questionable matte work is taken into account (with only three effects men credited and a reported budget of $1 million US for the entire affair, I’m willing to cut lots of slack in the SPFX department). It was certainly enough to hook me when I was younger and it still packs a wallop thanks in large part to John Charles’ exceptional scoring. It also leaves considerable room for thought, though I’m not sure The Quiet Earth is worth the hours I (and I’m sure hosts of other fans) have spent ruminating over the intricacies of its flawed narrative. The novel offered a cyclical conclusion, its end literally its beginning, with Hobson caught in a never-ending nightmare² resulting from his own guilt over the drowning death of his autistic son – a death he may have helped facilitate³.
The Quiet Earth is, as a whole, far from a bad film. I’d rate it as one of the highlights of the past half-century of science fiction and certainly one of the better of the serious efforts in the genre, confused dramatics and all. Director Geoff Murphy’s career has devolved more-or-less into sequels and low-budget action films (unfortunately including a Steven Seagal vehicle), a pity as his work here is quite adept. Producer Sam Pillsbury notes in his commentary that several of the film’s most memorable scenes were of Murphy’s making, the invasion of the Catholic church and Hobson’s speech to his various corrugated heads of state. James Bartle’s photography is occasionally rough but highly effective, particularly in the early scenes of the deserted Auckland. The John Charles score has phenomenal moments, while Bruno Lawrence’s much-lauded performance acts as the glue that bonds it all together.
The Starz / Anchor Bay DVD of The Quiet Earth is quiet the looker, easily surpassing the older VHS and Laserdisc variants. The 16:9 enhanced 1.85:1 transfer is excellent overall, with healthy detail and contrast and variable color (frequently a bit drab, particularly in the opening scenes) that’s in keeping with how the film looked when originally released. The transfer is remarkably clean and free of damage, and even infrequent speckling isn’t an issue – I doubt the film ever looked this new when it was out in theaters. My only complaint is with the lack of stabilization in the frame, a slight problem that has nevertheless plagued every video edition of this film I’ve ever seen. Audio is a reasonable Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo English track that faithfully replicates the original mix – there are no subtitles.
On-disc supplements are limited but welcome, consisting of a poor theatrical trailer that gives away all the highlights of the picture and a feature commentary with producer and writer Sam Pillsbury. The latter is understandably of the most interest. While I think it could have been improved with a bit of moderation Pillsbury still offers up a good deal of production information – what parts of the narrative are credited to which writer, how the infrequent special effects were accomplished, and just how easy it is to empty Auckland streets to shoot a post-apocalypse picture. It’s good stuff all told, and well worth a listen.
Sometimes ‘good enough’ is just that, and I’d say that The Quiet Earth more than qualifies for that distinction. The dramatic inadequacies become more irksome with repeat viewings, and I’d probably not harp on them so much were I not as familiar with the picture as I am. The Starz / Anchor Bay DVD is currently only available in plain packaging, as far as I’m aware, both as an earlier re-issue and more recently as a part of their ‘Cult Fiction’ line. I can’t see fans going wrong with either. While the film never achieves greatness it certainly gets an A for effort, and those in search of a serious sci-fi fix could do far, far worse. The Quiet Earth comes recommended.
¹This reviewer would love to actually read the book instead of relying on a lengthy synopsis, though at that price he thinks it should come with an automatic transmission and a free tank of gas. If you have a copy you wouldn’t mind loaning out for a week or so I’d certainly like to hear from you!
²The world of Harrison’s novel is not haunted with thoughts that the ‘Effect’ may happen again, but by an unseen and malevolent force the crazed Api associates with the Beast of the Bible and with verses from Revelations starting with 6:12 (the time of the ‘Effect’) – the opening of the sixth of seven seals. The Biblical connection and the unseen beast lend credence to the thought that the cyclical dream-world Hobson inhabits may well be a kind of personal Hell.
³The Hobson of the novel is far different from that of the film, and much less a hero. The ‘Effect’ of the story is undeniably his fault, the result of sabotage he committed with the underlying intention of killing his boss. Paranoid and very probably insane, Hobson kills Api and then leaps from a building, unable to reconcile that he was responsible for the death of every other human being on Earth. The novel ends as it begins, with Hobson awakening from a dream of falling at 6:12 A.M.
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