The Quiet Earth (1985) – Random Viewings With Ben And Josh

For as long as we’ve known each other, my friend Josh and I have talked about movies. Like, a lot. We’ve probably written thousands of pages back and forth about all the crap we’ve seen over the years, no exaggeration. I know C’est Non Un Blog has been quiet for a while, so to get things back up and running again I thought, “Why not just turn those conversations into a regular column?” The idea is that each week we’ll pick out a new movie, watch it, and break down what it is we did or didn’t like about it. The format is still an experiment in progress at this point, but we hope to turn this into a recurring discussion that you all can check out, so we hope you enjoy it. And if you’ve seen the movie as well, we’d love to hear your opinion on it. With that said, let’s talk about some movies!

 

The Quiet Earth (1985) – dir. Geoff Murphy

 

BEN: Today we begin our discussion of film with Geoff Murphy’s New Zealand sci-fi classic, The Quiet Earth, a film about a man who thinks he’s the last man on earth after a science project he’d been working on to create a sort of global wifi network for electricity goes haywire and makes every person on earth disappear…or does it? One of the more delightful aspects of this film, of which there are many, is that while it has a rather straightforward narrative it’s very withholding when it comes to answers. Did everyone disappear, or did he transport himself to another parallel universe? Is he dead or has he cheated death? Can we trust what is happening to be real, or is everything just happening in his mind?

The Quiet Earth achieves this subtle mystery through its deliberate choice of imagery, and there’s two examples that happen right at the very start of the film that I’d like to talk about. The very first image we see is of the sun rising over the horizon, but I think we’ll wait a little longer to dissect that one, since it directly mirrors the final shot of the film. Instead I’d like to talk about the next shot, which is our main character Zac Hobson (played by Bruno Lawrence) lying naked on his bed. This is the first of what will turn out to be a surprisingly large number of shots of Bruno Lawrence’s junk, but that shock of male nudity made me focus on one area of filmmaking I admit I largely ignore, which is costume choice. Zac wakes up naked as the day he was born, an intentional and deliberate image as he’s as of then unaware of what has happened to the world as he slept. He wanders the house innocently, but slightly disoriented, and only covers himself up when he starts to realize something is off and calls into work to check on things, only to have no one on the other end pick up the phone.

From that point on there seems to be a very strong correlation between what characters are thinking internally and what they are wearing on the outside. Zac puts on his suit and tie and starts to go about his regular morning routine, only to slowly discover that he can’t find another living soul anywhere in town. Once he finally accepts that he’s the only person on earth he goes on a shopping spree, Dawn of the Dead style, wearing fancy tuxedos and moving into a mansion where he imagines he’s a sort of James Bond. But it’s there at the mansion that he sees a woman’s slip and the cold reality that he’s never going to see another woman again hits him hard. He tries on the slip (hey, don’t judge, you would too) and suddenly he’s having a complete psychotic break, realizes that he might be responsible for killing every living creature on earth, and announces that he’s king of the quiet earth to a cardboard cutout of Adolf Hitler. He leaves the house, still in the slip, and starts engaging in all sorts of destructive behavior until he attempts suicide, only to change his mind and save himself at the last second. The next time we see him he’s all cleaned up and wearing a rather pastoral outfit, as if he had just been out herding some sheep, which transitions us into the next section of the film where it turns out (SPOILER ALERT) that–much like Will Forte on The Last Man on Earth–he’s not actually the last man on earth.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the rest of the film just yet, but to finish my thought, that focus on costume choice continues on through the two other characters we are introduced to, potential love interest Joanne (played by Alison Routledge) and potential rival Api (played by Pete Smith). When we’re introduced to Joanne she’s wearing very conventional clothing just like Zac is at this point in the movie, but later she starts to ditch the conventional wardrobe choices in favor of more wild and exotic outfits, which also just happens to coincide with the introduction of Api, a Māori man who makes a rather bold entrance in a sort of leather military-inspired outfit, Eddie Murphy Raw-style. Interestingly enough, I don’t really remember Api changing his outfit in the movie, outside of his and Joanne’s final scene together where they’re both naked, symbolizing their return to innocence. There’s something wild and dangerous about his outfit that threatens Zac, but is also sexy enough to attract Joanne away from Zac.

But what did you think Josh? Were you as hyper-aware of the characters’ costume choices as I was?

 

JOSH:  Nope! Though it was hard to miss Zac spending the first few minutes of the film in his birthday suit.  The costumes definitely do tell the tale of that opening act – first he’s naked, then wearing a suit, and finally slumped on the street in a tattered slip with a shotgun stuffed in his mouth. Now that is a journey.

The relative innocence of that first image of Zac belies the fact that he actually knows a lot more about what has happened than we do when we first encounter him.  Not to mention the circumstances of how he came to be lying on that bed naked. It’s a deceptive image, or rather, one with multiple layers that only become clear over time.  I liked that, and it’s a strategy Murphy returns to a lot. You mentioned that he’s both straightforward and withholding – very true, and he gets a lot of mileage out of playing with that balance.

The contrast between Zac and Api’s initial appearances is also striking.  If Zac is framed as a (not so innocent) babe born into this new world, Api is the opposite, a man who has not let go of the old world.  We first meet him covered head to toe, with his face completely hidden. Once he takes off the mask, his caution makes total sense. As a Māori man who has probably faced a ton of racist bullshit in his life, he would be on his guard in this new, barren world – after all, suppose the only other survivors turn out to be neo-Nazis (and wouldn’t that be a hell of a story?).  It’s only Joanne’s presence that seems to truly allow him to let his guard down.

I’m split on the actual love triangle, because on one level it made the movie much less interesting to me.  Joanne’s arrival signals the start of a much more normal story arc, and then Api cements that by filling the expected role of romantic rival/antagonist.  What redeems it partially for me is just how spacy and weird the movie treats aspects of that relationship. There’s a point later on where Zac mentions to Joanne that he sometimes feels as if she knew Api before the Effect, as he calls the phenomenon that disappeared all life on the planet.

I don’t think the film ever really suggests that they did know each other, right?  But they certainly do give off that vibe.  From the moment they spot each other, there’s some serious looks between them.  Murphy accentuates their first meeting by having Joanne step away from Zac, staring at Api, who pauses, staring at her, before the three of them slowly move into a warm, loving embrace (just as Joanne and Zac did in their first meeting).  But that three-way happiness doesn’t last. I remember thinking when Joanne first showed up that she and Zac were going to be the Adam and Eve of the Quiet Earth, and I was worried when Api showed up that he was going to be positioned as the snake who tempts them into ruin.  And there is a little of that – he definitely has an ax to grind with Zac. Hell, he even runs him off the road and seems more or less ready to kill him through most of the film’s final act. But it’s Joanne and Api who end up in the Adam and Eve position, the last survivors on Earth, while Zac sacrifices himself to stop the Effect from happening again, preserving the Earth for them while inadvertently sending himself to… a new planet?  A new dimension? Hell, heaven or purgatory?

In retrospect, I wondered if the distance Zac felt between him and Joanne, the closeness he felt (or imagined) with Api and her was both real and a manifestation of his own growing detachment from her and the world.  Going back to that opening image, Zac is, we come to realize, on a hell of a journey through this movie – complicit to a degree in the Effect that wiped out all life on the planet, guilt-ridden, but given a chance to atone for his error. And atone he will.  He starts observing the abnormalities in the sun right around when Joanne shows up, so as their relationship blossoms, so too does his realization that the Effect might recur, and his determination to do something to stop it. And he chooses to leave them behind, with each other, but we’re not really privy to when he starts to make those decisions.

So what did you make of the love triangle and where it ends up?

 

BEN: Perhaps the best unsolved mystery in The Quiet Earth is who are these characters and why, exactly, are they, and only they, the last people on earth? Is this story really just about some science experiment gone wrong, or is there some greater meaning at work here? Is some invisible hand (God? Aliens?) pushing them towards their final destination? My personal favorite theory is that Joanne and Api might not even be there at all, at least not in the traditional sense, but instead were put there (by someone? Something?) in order to push Zac’s story forward.

I want to make one minor clarification to something you said earlier, Josh. Joanne’s first meeting with Zac doesn’t begin with a warm embrace like when she meets Api. Interestingly, both she and Api first appear by getting the drop on Zac with a gun drawn on him. Joanne sneaks up on him at his house, while Api creates an elaborate trap with abandoned cars to bottleneck Zac into a killzone. I think we’re meant to see them both as threats, literally and metaphorically, to Zac and his journey, but also as necessary forces put there for the purpose of pushing his narrative forward.

Zac mentions to Joanne at one point that he thought he was perfectly suited to a life lived alone, absent of any other human companionship, and that surviving the event was some sort of karmic justice for killing everyone else on Earth. But then Joanne just happens to show up when he starts to have doubts over his ability to be alone, and almost immediately the two of them settle into domestic bliss as if to show Zac exactly what it is that he would be missing out on living the rest of his life alone. But the married life isn’t for Zac.

As you mentioned earlier, Joanne’s arrival also seems to correspond with Zac first noticing that something was wrong with the sun. Api’s arrival happens right after Zac does some tests and discovers that something definitely is wrong with this Earth, and that the Event seems to be making a comeback. It feels like Zac is meant to discover the truth of the Event, while Joanne and Api are there to create conflict to make sure Zac stays on track to make that discovery. Does he try to prevent the second Event if the two of them aren’t around? I think probably not.

That’s just a theory though. Assuming Joanne and Api aren’t just figments of Zac’s imagination, why are they there? You made a point earlier of wondering if Joanne and Api actually knew each other before the movie starts. When Api divulges his backstory it actually helps us as the audience fill in one of the main mysteries of the film, which is, how exactly did the survivors get here and not end up like everyone else? We discover that all three characters presumably died just as the Event occurred, which somehow allowed them to survive the Event instead of disappearing like everyone else on Earth. Zac killed himself for being part of the project that created the Event. Joanne’s hair dryer shorted out and electrocuted her. But it’s Api who gives us the most details about his death.

According to Api, his best friend drowned him because Api fell in love with his mate’s wife. The wife killed herself out of shame, and Api’s mate blamed Api for her death, and in turn drowned Api because of it. Maybe Api’s story is just meant as a narrative device to frame the love triangle between the three survivors, or maybe, and this is a stretch, Joanne was Api’s mate’s wife. Of the three, Joanne gives us the least details about her death. All we see is a hair dryer shorting out, and then she’s on the Quiet Earth. What if the brevity of her story marks it as unreliable, and what if she dropped that hair dryer into the tub or something like that, perhaps because she fell in love with her husband’s best mate? That very brief shot of her dying is pretty much the only detail we get of her life before the Event, so maybe Quiet Earth could be a do-over for them. And if so, maybe Zac wasn’t meant to kill himself before the Event happened. Maybe this is also his do-over to push him towards the stunning conclusion of this film.

Speaking of which, let’s return to that first shot of the film, of the sun slowly rising over the ocean. The shot goes on and on for what feels like quite a while. Heat from the sun’s rays distort the image, making the ocean’s waves look fuzzy and unreal, almost like abstract art, our first real hint that something’s off with this Earth, and it’s something for us to remember when Zac later notices the sun is vibrating abnormally. The sun also appears to float on the horizon, looking a lot like that egg Zac pours into a glass of champagne towards the middle of the film (is that a thing, putting a raw egg in champagne? Is that some weird Kiwi hangover cure?). Maybe that egg in the champagne is another subtle hint of things to come, a symbol of his rebirth?

Ultimately Zac has to learn that fighting the feelings Api and Joanne have for each other is only going to lead to disaster. Right before the climax of the film Api drives a truck full of explosives full speed into a truck full of fuel in order to push it out of the way, a decision that seems reckless at best, and is one I spent watching through my fingers on the edge of my seat. His actions are meant to show off to Joanne just how much more masculine he is compared to Zac (and it does seem to work on her), but he risks killing them all over a dumb schoolyard rivalry. Zac then makes the selfless decision to let the two of them be together while he drives the truck full of explosives into the satellite array responsible for causing the Event.

And then…something weird happens. We see the same tunnel effect the characters described seeing the first time they died and went through the Event, and suddenly Zac is on another world. Similar to the rising sun in the first shot of the film, the final shot is of a ringed Saturn-like world rising above the horizon. Weird clouds pepper the horizon. Are they clouds though? They look like the aftermath of mushroom clouds. Could the clouds be emanating from the other research stations placed around the globe that caused the Event? Are we even on Earth anymore? Zac notices his tape recorder is still in his hand and lifts it up to his mouth, but then stops himself. Can he even put into words what he’s seeing right now? Is there anyone left in the world who would ever even get to hear the tape?

Well, Josh, what do you think the Event is? And have you ever heard of someone drinking raw egg with champagne before?

 

JOSH:  To answer your last question first, raw egg with champagne was not on my radar before this movie.  Here’s a fun fact, though: if you google “raw egg with champagne,” the sixth entry that comes up is…  an article about this very film! The third item on the listing assures that, yes, the pairing of egg with champagne is a thing, and apparently a well known one at that.

Going back to Api and Joanne, the film does give juuuuust enough information to make you want to make the leap to them having an actual history together.  I’m still resistant to that actually being the case, because… well, I think I just prefer to have the stranger answer be the right one in this case.

But that’s also fairly typical of a movie that encourages you to reach for the neat answer, but makes sure to preserve the messier, and maybe more likely, alternative.  Is there a force organizing the Event? Did some invisible hand intervene to make sure these three people “survived” by dying at the exact right moment? Is it all just blind chance that happens to have some massive personal significance to one of the survivors?

My own interpretation is that the initial Event, and Zac’s survival, is a matter of blind chance.  Zac’s response to the dangers of Project Flashlight is to kill himself. It doesn’t work, and his unlikely survival triggers a kind of metaphysical rebirth – back to that initial image of him on the bed.  He considers killing himself again later on, when confronted with the magnitude of his loneliness, guilt, etc. But he doesn’t, and the people he encounters push him further along that metaphysical road. His actions and experiences push him along a path from being essentially selfish to essentially selfless, willing to die again – not to absolve himself of personal responsibility, but to ensure that Api and Joanne will survive.

He undoubtedly dies again in the explosion at the lab, but because it’s at the same time as the Event Round 2, he also survives and is reborn yet again.  You asked what I think the Event is, and I have no idea what the literal explanation is, but within the story it is an engine that drives Zac toward a spiritual evolution.  The ending reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the accelerated evolutionary process that Kier Dullea undergoes, leading to his rebirth as the Star Baby. In that movie it is expressly the work of alien technology spurring on that evolutionary movement.

What I like about The Quiet Earth is that it suggests that evolutionary leap can also be self-directed, that even in the wake of a disastrous choice, we can, to quote (with maximum corniness) President Obama, become “the change we wish to see in the world.”

But the ending also reminded me of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, which (SPOILERS for the uninitiated) ends with its main characters stranded in an alien, threatening world/dimension/what have you.  And I guess the lesson, if we combine the two films is, “strive to change – but be careful what you wish for.”

——

 

Well, that’s it for this week’s discussion of The Quiet Earth. I think it’s safe to say both Josh and I really enjoyed it, and even though we spoiled a bunch of shit I think the movie is still great enough that it doesn’t really matter, so do yourself a favor and check it out! I watched it over on Shudder, which is a really fantastic streaming service for horror fans.

Next time Josh and I will be watching Alec Baldwin play the titular character in The Shadow (1994) – dir. Russell Mulcahy. Because, you know, 90s kids were all about 1930s pulp superheroes.

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