Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Retro Review :: The Quiet Earth (1985)

It's been a while. I've traveled to the edge of the world and back (or at least finished another year of university) and let me tell you... the maps are right: there be dragons. With a little extra time on my hands for the moment, however, I've decided to catch up on some movies I've been meaning to watch.

Between Anchor Bay and The Criterion Collection, many sci-fi and horror classics have been deservedly saved from the abyss of cinematic obscurity that has been created by a society that seems to have no long-term memory whatsoever, at least (or maybe especially) when it comes to art or entertainment. Anchor Bay, in an effort to save even more films, has recently unrolled a Cult Fiction series of DVDs, a set dedicated to obscure and beloved films. The series isn't themed. Digging deep into the vaults of many different genres, such horror, sci-fi, grindhouse crime and exploitation films and even camp spoof, the series includes such gems as The Wicker Man, C.H.U.D., and even Werner Herzog's great Fitzcarraldo. Yes, it's a strange collection. However, many of these films deserve to be seen, if for no other reason then that they show us just how derivative much of our modern cinematic endeavours have become.

One of these Cult Fiction films is The Quiet Earth, a 1985 New Zealand-made apocalyptic tale about the last man on earth. Sound familiar? Sure, especially with a certain blockbuster currently cluttering up our mental airwaves. However, this is the movie I Am Legend should have been, wanted to be, but never had any hope of actually being.

At precisely 6:12 in the morning, Zak Hobson (Bruno Lawrence, who I'd never heard of before but who is astonishing here) wakes up to discover that everyone else in the world as disappeared. The buildings are all empty, the roads are littered with the wreckages of suddenly abandoned vehicles, and fallen aircraft take out entire city blocks in flaming death dives. There are no bodies; everyone has just vanished. Not even animals or insects remain. What follows is a character study of mental deterioration. With no other living being around him, Zak descends into madness. Remember those scenes in I Am Legend where Will Smith was running around, making friends and talking with mannequins? Remember how interesting they were compared to the poorly fabricated digital escapades that followed them? The Quiet Earth is like those scenes... only much, much better. Though those scenes can shamelessly harvest the organs of The Quiet Earth, they can't even begin to breath the kind of life into them that suffuses The Quiet Earth.

While other movies try to portray isolation and madness they so often do so by watering them down for us and by giving us a sanitized version of them. It's the Wilson effect and it assumes that an honest depiction of human madness would be too uncomfortable for an audience to handle, at least in mainstream cinema. Zak, however, has no volleyball. Neither he nor the filmmakers give us a buffer between Zak and his madness; they gives us no anthropomorphic crutch to temper Zak's isolation. So he rages about in a silk dress, brandishing his shotgun. He repeatedly, and without any real explanation, shoots a crucifix. While assuming the role of President of the Earth before an audience of cardboard cut-outs that include Hitler and Nixon, he confesses his crimes. In fact, for the first act of the film there are hardly any sci-fi or thriller elements to the story at all. What we get instead is a very convincing character study in effects of pure isolation on the human mind.

Unfortunately, the following two acts are not quite as interesting. The narrative is fleshed out a bit more and Zak eventually rebuilds himself and begins to piece together a theory of what happened to everyone. A few predictable plot devices ensue: yes, Zak isn't entirely alone; yes, humanity is probably too self-destructive for its own good. Nevertheless, despite a few missteps, the film is a triumph. While it is not "Quite simply the best science-fiction film of the '80s," as the quote on the box would have us believe (that honour goes to Blade Runner, after all), it is a film that deserves to be seen, not only by science-fiction fan but by anyone who loves good movies.

In the holy pantheon of science-fiction, there are only four films that, as far as I'm concerned, have achieved a full apotheosis: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Andrei Tarkovsky's Solyaris (1972), and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). While The Quiet Earth is not quite as good as these films, it is perhaps one of those rare films that comes closes to matching their greatness. This of course means that it is by leaps and bounds better than almost any sci-fi flick you're likely to see coming out of Hollywood any time soon. Seeing The Quiet Earth has actually upset me a bit. 'Cause if I missed this one, what other great sci-fi films have I missed only because they have unfairly slipped out of sight and out of our short-termed, pop-cultural minds?

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