The Quiet Earth
(SPOILERS) I had in mind that I first happened upon The Quiet Earth in a season of Moviedrome, as it seems exactly that kind of offbeat fare However, according to BBC Genome, while it was first shown on BBC2 in the UK, it was in 1991, much later than I thought, and in a 9pm slot. Geoff Murphy’s movie bears all the strengths and failings you associate with a cult SF picture: low budget, variable performances and writing/plotting, but also inspired ideas and, in its depiction of an all-but deserted world, the kind of verisimilitude a big studio budget ultimately tends to detract from with high gloss (I Am Legend).
In a typically cheerful interview on the Arrow Blu-ray release, Kim Newman identifies several essential tropes of the “last man on Earth” sub-genre, and The Quiet Earth duly checks these off. They are also present and correct in both the most recent adaptations of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (which chronologically fall either side of this picture).
We’re introduced to our protagonist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence), apparently alone in the world following an event we learn about only subsequently. He takes full opportunity to avail himself of free gear, food and lodging (and, in an amusingly edited moment, segues from playing with a toy railway to “playing” with a real one). We see similar in both The Omega Man and I Am Legend. And then, inevitably, the isolation strikes. Linked with that, there’s a lurking guilt, as per Heston and Smith, since Hobson nurses a degree of responsibility for what has befallen the planet. And so, a degree of madness sets in, characterised here by donning a dress, giving a speech to a garden full of life-size cut-outs of famous figures, and blowing the limbs off a statue of Christ.
There is, it has to be said, something a little contrived about a few of these moments, a “What can we think of that will amuse/shock?” quality that carries through into later episodes. Nevertheless, Lawrence, a long-time colleague of director Murphy, is terrific throughout. His hangdog melancholy, vaguely reminiscent of Warren Mitchell, entirely cements the picture, and as a presence, he strikes a fiercely unglamorous, dishevelled look.
But as Newman goes on to note, it’s very difficult to sustain this basic setup without additional human interaction; Lawrence doesn’t even make it to the halfway mark – it’s easy to see why Warner Bros baulked at early iterations of the ultimately doomed Ridders/Schwarzenegger I Am Legend – before falling in with first Alison Routledge’s perky Joanne and then Pete Smith’s aggressive Api. Cue: inevitable love triangle. Whoever has opted along this route has inevitably drained the atmosphere built up in the initial stages (see both mentioned Matheson adaptations). In The Quiet Earth’s case, comparisons are drawn to the 1959 film The World, the Flesh and the Devil (based on PM Shiel’s The Purple Cloud and Ferdinand Reyher’s End of the World), which I haven’t seen. I was reminded of the more recent Z for Zachariah, though. Albeit, that is a much soberer, more intense affair.
Elements of the trio’s interaction tend to the clichéd or crude. There are inevitable clashes and comments in respect of race (Api is Maori) and gender (“Of course, an exclusive all-male club playing God with the universe” scoffs Joanne at one point). Hobson quickly realises that any attempts to keep Joanne to himself are doomed (“I used to be a loner, and then you came along” he tells her; “I’m thinking about the three of us now” she rebuffs). It doesn’t help the budding relationship between Joanne and Api that there’s no chemistry between Routledge and first-time actor Smith, making the new-found tension with Hobson seem calculated rather than natural.
In her essay on The Quiet Earth, Amy Simmons suggests the picture “loses something of its free-floating inventiveness as soon as it gains a plot” but I wouldn't entirely agree; the antics of the trio would have quickly become tiresome if allowed to continue any longer. Besides which, the SF element is actually a satisfyingly neat one, with just enough plausibility to allow us to go with it (even if blowing things up at the climax lacks finesse).
There’s discussion of why they came to be there when no one else is, and they realise that each died at the moment of the Effect (Hobson committing suicide, Api being murdered and Joanne electrocuted; there’s even an explanation for why there are live fish in a stream). Hobson’s doomy prognostications add an air of tension (“I can’t quite measure it. But I can feel it. It’s as though we’ve been shifted sideways”; “Does it look to you like the Sun’s pulsating?”; “Unit charge of an electron has changed and is increasing in oscillation”; “I can only conclude that the fabric of the universe has not only altered but is highly unstable”). We are told “It was an American idea. They were experimenting with energy transmissions through a grid surrounding the Earth” (curiously I was reading about Earth grids on the now sadly delated Stolen History forum the day I rewatched the movie; a different sort of grid, admittedly).
Hobson’s “heroic” decision to drive a truck loaded with gelignite into the lab in order to stop the Effect is fitting in terms of his character trajectory. It leads to the picture’s indelible final shot, with Hobson on a beach staring at a matte painting/SF novel cover of strange cloud formation as a Saturn-esque planet looms on the horizon. Inevitably, this striking image formed the basis of the poster, something of an annoying spoiler, as well as an abstract and misleading one for anyone going in cold. Apparently, an ending of Api and Joanne as the new Adam and Eve had been considered, but enigmatic sense prevailed.
Craig Harrison’s 1981 novel of the same name features a time-loop element, and also a suggestion intimated here that Hobson may be in a personal purgatory. At one point, he is mocked for having thought he was President of the World; he later suggests that Api and Joanne are figments of his imagination. While (producer and co-writer) Sam Pillsbury indicated that the film’s ending should be taken as it appears (that Hobson jumped to another world at the moment of death), Murphy likely had in mind a purgatory idea (“having to relive your thing until you work out your karma”). This is something revisited, without the science trappings, in HBO’s The Leftovers. In any event, there’s a Mandela Effect vibe to science messing with the fabric of reality here, albeit not in the only-vaguely-perceptible sense.
The Quite Earth represents something of a high point in Murphy’s career. His Hollywood forays, Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory aside, mostly tended to the steaming piles side of quality. Most memorably, if you can call it that, in the form of Freejack. That movie represented exactly the opposite of The Quiet Earth: bloated, incoherent SF, with stars rather than characters and effects instead of plot. The Quiet Earth is occasionally rough around the edges but its brand of dystopian SF stands up.