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April 6, 2009 | by  | in Film | [ssba]

The Quiet Earth (1985)

For a form with such a narrow remit, the man-alone-on-post-apocalyptic-earth-and-has-to-face-his-demons-while-dealing-with-the-fact-that-he-may-in-fact-not-be-alone-after-all genre has a suprising amount of entries. The Quiet Earth is New Zealand’s bash at that very brick. Scientist Zac (Bruno Lawrence) wakes up one day to find himself seemingly the last person in the world. The top secret and morally questionable project he was working on has malfunctioned and it seems he is alone. Or is he?

Well, no.

There are other people in the cast list, so other people must turn up. Sigh. Cast lists really should come with spoiler warnings.

The Quiet Earth takes the low-grade farmyard psychadelia of its pedigree, the blerta movement, and applies it to this most trope-ful of genre plots. The result is a highly intelligent and wickedly funny riff on the many guilts that we call living in the modern world. Whereas the most of the works within this field—the war crime-style atrocity that was I Am Legendw is probably the best known example—are stories of the individual’s responsibilities to themselves to stay sane and save themselves, The Quiet Earth makes it about the morals of modern power. This is about the powers we all wield and what our responsibilities to each other are. This is brilliantly illustrated in one of the defining scenes of Kiwi cinema, as Zac annouces himself President of the World to an assembly of black and white cardboard standees—Hitler, Nixon, Reagan—and goes on to exposit on how he knew better and how much guilt there can be in doing nothing. Powerful stuff.

Bruno Lawrence gives a performance of rare power and force, commanding every hair of your attention for every frame of his presence. I am pressed to think of a finer performance in Kiwi cinema.

Geoff Murphy’s direction is a step up from the oddly disconcerting sloppiness of Goodbye Pork Pie and Utu, and it is sad that it seems that The Quiet Earth is not as widely a regarded acheivement as his other local work. James Bartle’s cinematography is worthy of great praise, full of confident, perfect frames and with a delicious palette of reds and tunnels. The opening shot of bold red sunrise in quiet close up is, for me, one of the defining moments of New Zealand cinema. The confidence in that sole image to take us, for two minutes, into the beginning of the film is, I feel, fundamentally Kiwi in its ballsyness.

The Quiet Earth is not flawless. There are a multitude of issues with its gender politics. Time has been less than kind to a lot of the more hallucinogenic sequences, and there is at least one unprompted car chase too many. These are not major issues but enough to knock it from a 9/10 to a 8/10.

But, well, if you need any more reason to see this, where else are you going to see a balding man in a dress threaten a statue of Jesus with a shotgun while demanding that God appear? “…Or the kid gets it!”

Written by Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence and Sam Pillsbury
Directed by Geoff Murphy
With Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge and Peter Smith


About the Author ()

Uther was one of the two arts editors in 2009. He was the horoscopier and theatre writer in 2010. Alongside Elle Hunt, Uther was coeditor in 2011.

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