Science and Humanity in The Quiet Earth

Brief autobiographical note: it’s summer and I’m unemployed, so I really have nothing better to do than write movie reviews. Yet my new living quarters (and their lack of wireless Internet) has thrown my film writing tendencies all out of whack. This post is part of my attempt to remedy that and get my criticism groove back. It’s also the beginning of a summer quasi-series in which Ashley and I will discuss sci-fi/horror movies from Australia and New Zealand. Because hey, who doesn’t love cinema from Down Under?

Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth (1985) belongs to that hallowed tradition of “Is there anybody out there?” stories. They’re stories like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and its film adaptations, or the first episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where Is Everybody?” They prey on the human fear of loneliness; they ask, what if you were an island unto yourself? The Quiet Earth’s depressed scientist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence), however, also has to deal with a worsening manmade apocalypse, plus sexual and ethnic tensions.

And just as you couldn’t have The Last Man on Earth without Vincent Price, The Quiet Earth just wouldn’t work if Lawrence wasn’t one hell of an actor. I first saw him as a deranged colonist out for revenge in Murphy’s earlier film Utu. Here, he’s similarly driven off the deep end by a traumatic experience (in this case, thinking he’s the only person alive), but he doesn’t stop at making compound rifles. During the first third of the film, he enjoys wish fulfillment, roleplaying, and cross-dressing, culminating in a press conference (for cardboard cut-outs of world leaders) at which he declares himself president of earth.

Lawrence’s easy slide from lonely desperation to histrionic madness is a good match with the ironic eye of Murphy’s camera, which presents his rapid decline as a function of his empty environment. As it follows Zac’s antics, the film is bipolar, pairing his longing and regret with some dark humor. The mood stabilizes somewhat, however, once the other two characters are introduced: Joanne, a pretty redhead, and Api, a militant Maori. Yes, we have a love triangle, but it doesn’t take over the story; it just complicates matters. As with all of my favorite science fiction, cosmic catastrophes are just a pretense for probing the human psyche, whether in Zac’s psychosis or in his relationships with the others.

Some of the film’s sharpest points are about scientific progress and the potential for disaster. Zac feels guilty for his participation in Operation Flashlight, an international experiment in alternative energy that may have caused “The Effect” and erased most of the earth’s inhabitants. I’m reminded of Lindsay Ellis’s recent post about “playing God” and how “Science Is Bad” in sci-fi movies. While The Quiet Earth’s characters occasionally discuss their situation in these terms, the film’s too smart to just lay out a science = evil equation. In its last third, for example it delves into the interpersonal consequences of Zac’s status as a scientist, both in his culpability and his specialized knowledge, and how it alienates him from Joanne and Api.

By making Zac’s lab a single unit in a broader project headed by a secretive American team, the film also locates its apocalypse within Cold War politics. According to The Quiet Earth, it’s not Zac or science that’s to blame so much as the whole system of West vs. East that makes the clandestine deployment of Operation Flashlight necessary. (I’m reminded of Dr. Strangelove here: “Mr. President, [the Doomsday machine] is not only possible, it is essential.”) During his mental breakdown press conference, Zac proclaims,

I have dedicated all my scientific knowledge and skill to projects which I knew could be put to evil purposes… for the common good, they said.

This isn’t just another disaster movie where a scientist has to hurry and fix what his hubristic experiments fucked up. Embedded in The Quiet Earth’s surface narrative is some very subtle satire about the uses and abuses of science in the mid-’80s. It’s about cost and accountability on personal and national levels. And it’s all the more relevant now in an age of oil spills and global climate change. Murphy, with writer/producer Sam Pillsbury, goes where many other filmmakers wouldn’t, as Joanne and Api observe that the scientific establishment is a boys’ club, and a white boys’ club at that.

This trenchant statement about scientific ethics adds considerably to The Quiet Earth’s power; this is definitely a thinking man’s sci-fi. The structure of the story itself reflects Zac’s desire to understand his situation, as the viewer is fed only enough information to keep them invested in the film, with some facts kept tantalizingly out of reach. Did Operation Flashlight really cause the Effect? If so, how? What does the ending mean? It’s one of those films that has numerous interpretations built into it, because its plot is almost allegorically simple, with the emphasis reserved for smaller, more human moments.

And underlying all of this is Geoff Murphy’s delightful visual sensibility. As you can see, The Quiet Earth is shot in and around ultra-modern ’80s settings; in keeping with the film’s mingling of humor and despair, Murphy foregrounds electronics, mannequins, cars, and other objects that have outlasted their human creators. The city frequently looks like it’s about engulf Zac, who grows paranoid of his silent, motionless surroundings. The fact that the film is set in a land as vast and open as New Zealand only amplifies this effect, which reaches its pinnacle in the film’s final moments. It’s the film’s most famous scene – even used on poster art – but I won’t spoil it here. Go check out The Quiet Earth and experience for yourself that sublime image of the rearranged cosmos.

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