The Quiet Earth (1985)

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Ahhh, to be the last person on Earth – in a certain light, doesn’t it sound kind of enticing? You could drive a Lamborghini through a fruit cart, just for the hell of it. See the Mona Lisa without waiting in line, touch it, even deface it. Sure, crushing loneliness and existential despair would eventually set in, but for a time (unless someone else showed up) you’d experience a perverse thrill of absolute freedom.

In The Quiet Earth, Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) is a defense contractor who wakes in a country hotel room to find himself utterly alone in rural New Zealand. Driving toward the city he finds crashed cars and still-steaming dinners, the drivers and diners nowhere to be found. Upon reaching Hamilton, he finds the city devoid of its 150,000 or so inhabitants. Zac may have an inkling of what happened – his company just took part in a worldwide missile defense experiment, fronted by an American firm, which may have done something to alter the sun, or time and space as we know it.

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Zac soon abandons any pretense of figuring out what happened and indulges in juvenile delights – trains, steamrollers and mannequins are involved – eventually finding himself mired in despair and increasingly unmoored from reality. But (as the presence of other actors in the main title credits suggests) he may not be completely alone.

Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth is exactly the sort of underseen gem the Discoveries section of this blog was made for. If you have a taste for thoughtful or left field sci-fi, or simply enjoyed the antics of the The Last Man on Earth's early episodes, this is worth your time, if only to see where the seeds were laid for that Will Forte show, I Am Legend and other lonely end-of-the-world tales. 28 Days Later and I Am Legend showed us what an empty London or New York City might look like, and there's no shortage of rural post-apocalyptic stories (The Road, the Mad Max films) – but there are much fewer depictions of empty medium-sized cities like Hamilton, New Zealand. This setting actually feels the most shocking, more so than the too-easy creepiness of the abandoned countryside or the exaggerated spectacle of an empty metropolis. Hamilton is the sort of place usually forgotten by film and TV – it lacks the desolation of the Outback, the charm of the small town or the glitz and grime of big cities. It's a place with plenty of vitality and life, but mostly of an ordinary everyday kind. Maybe it's because my own hometown (Madison, Wisconsin) is of a similar medium size.  But to see this sort of comfortably active, banal city inexplicably emptied of people feels especially alarming and poignant.

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The Quiet Earth isn’t just an elliptical depiction of someone coping with the end of the world (though there’s plenty of that). There is a fun bit of science and technology fantasizing to explain what may have happened, but the explanation rests on a core of character development. Those who may have survived are there for a specific, sad reason, and The Quiet Earth becomes a quirkily distilled study of how human longing connects or keeps people apart. We all orbit the sun, anyway – the film opens on a lurid, searing shot of the rising sun, and ends on a fantastical, ambiguous image with haunting implications.

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With its dolly zooms and other stylistic diversions, lack of clear resolution and stark widescreen compositions, The Quiet Earth (a New Zealand production) feels like part of the Australian New Wave, itself an echo of the New Hollywood movement. In modern terms this feels not unlike the sort of quiet, odd little post-apocalyptic film Taika Waititi might make if he were so inclined (and now that I type this, I wish he would). For the time being, The Quiet Earth will do nicely.