Skip to main content

I get the feeling we’re either dead, or in a different universe.

The Quiet Earth
(1985)

(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. 


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

By whom will this be rectified? Your ridiculously ineffectual assassins?

The X-Files 3.2: Paperclip Paperclip recovers ground after The Blessing Way stumbled slightly in its detour, and does so with some of the series’ most compelling dramatics so far. As well as more of Albert performing prayer rituals for the sick (perhaps we could spend some time with the poor guy over breakfast, or going to the movies? No, all he’s allowed is stock Native American mysticism).

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

That’s what it’s all about. Interrupting someone’s life.

Following (1998) (SPOILERS) The Nolanverse begins here. And for someone now delivering the highest-powered movie juggernauts globally – that are not superhero or James Cameron movies – and ones intrinsically linked with the “art” of predictive programming, it’s interesting to note familiar themes of identity and limited perception of reality in this low-key, low-budget and low-running time (we won’t see much of the latter again) debut. And, naturally, non-linear storytelling. Oh, and that cool, impersonal – some might say clinical – approach to character, subject and story is also present and correct.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008) (SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley , our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“ too syrupy ”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.  Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has c