Released by: Film Movement
Released on: December 6, 2016
Directed by: Geoff Murphy
Cast: Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge, Pete Smith
Year: 1985 Purchase From Amazon
Scientist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) wakes up one morning in his New Zealand home to discover that everyone has disappeared. While driving to work, he stops at a convenience store, but no one is there. He happens upon a crashed passenger airplane, but the seats are all empty. At work, he sees a monitor that tells him “Project Flashlight Complete,” but the office is sans people. He quickly determines that the disappearance of humanity has something to do with Project Flashlight.
As time passes, he begins to slip into a depressed, sometimes manic state owing, one assumes, to his loneliness. He drives around his neighborhood with a megaphone, hoping to find someone else alive. He breaks into homes, plays saxophone in the rain, and dresses in women’s clothes, but none of it alleviates his loneliness and anxiety. He considers suicide but ultimately decides against it. Then, one day, he comes across another survivor, a young woman named Joanne (Alison Routledge). They talk, talk, and talk some more, then have sex, then talk, then go out in search of other survivors. When they come across a Maori man, Api (Pete Smith), they realize why they alone have survived: at the moment Project Flashlight did its thing, they were in the process of dying: Zac was committing suicide on pills; Joanne was being electrocuted; and Api was being murdered.
Naturally, tensions both sexual and nonsexual arise among the trio. Api tries to kill Zac, while Joanne threatens to kill them both. Meanwhile, Zac becomes obsessed with figuring out what has happened and correcting it.
The Quiet Earth is one in a long line of films dealing with the last survivors of a cataclysmic event, from Five (1951) to The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), The Last Man on Earth (1964) to I Am Legend (2007). It’s far from the worst of the bunch, but neither is it the best (despite some people’s claims). Like so many of Robinson Crusoe-type films, it starts out strong when the protagonist is dealing with his situation and working to survive in a world sans human contact, but the moment His Girl Friday is introduced, the whole affair inexplicably goes downhill—and fast!
The primary reason The Quiet Earth remains so interesting is because of Bruno Lawrence, who dominates its first third. Lawrence, who was born in England and at a very young age emigrated to New Zealand with his family, began his career as a drummer in several rock and jazz bands that toured New Zealand and Australia. He was the founder of the group Blerta (the first two letters representing Lawrence’s own initials), a music and theater ensemble that lasted from around 1970 until 1975. It proved a popular group in its home territories and brought Lawrence attention in his native country. It also introduced him to Geoff Murphy, who was also a founding member.
While Lawrence’s acting career had begun in the late 1960s (he’d even won awards for it), his film career didn’t take off until over a decade later. His breakthrough role came in 1981 in director Roger Donaldson’s Smash Palace, in which he starred as a distraught father who kidnaps his own daughter and goes on the run after the breakdown of his marriage.
When filmmaker Geoff Murphy went to adapt Kiwi author Craig Harrison’s 1981 thought-provoking science-fiction thriller The Quiet Earth, he cast longtime friend Lawrence in the lead role (given the amount of improvisation and dialogue work he did, Lawrence was given a co-writing credit). It was something of a coup; without Lawrence’s rugged, charismatic performance, the film would likely have been dead in the water. As it is, Lawrence can’t entirely save it, but it at least he makes the latter parts of it more bearable. (As an aside, Lawrence died in 1995, about six months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.)
The Quiet Earth hits Blu-ray courtesy of Film Movement with an MPEG-4 AVC transfer in 1080p high definition. As with its theatrical release, the film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a BD50 and contains a high bit rate. For the most part, the image looks good. Most scenes contain a great deal of detail, and colors are rich. Since much of the film takes place outside, there’s plenty of grasses, trees, and bushes to be seen, and the varying shades of green look resplendent. But there’s one problem, and it’s a serious one: A too-generous helping of noise reduction tools has been applied. Except for a few brief sequences, there isn’t an ounce of grain to be seen, which gives the film an off-kilter look that doesn’t reflect its original presentation. And some scenes end up looking waxier than they should (this seems to be truer of later scenes than earlier ones). It’s rare to have a Blu-ray presentation that features both a waxy look and high detail, and which one you get here depends on the individual shot. What this means is that DNR wasn’t applied to every single shot or scene but, regardless, was applied too liberally. Still, it’s far from unwatchable and often looks good.
Film Movement has provided two primary tracks for the film. The first comes in lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, while the second comes in lossy English Dolby Digital 5.1. Both are similar in fidelity, but the DTS track ultimately comes out ahead for obvious reasons. The elements are mixed well given that the film was originally shot in Dolby stereo. Dialogue remains front and center, with lesser or ambient sounds acting as accentuations in the background. There are no subtitles, which seems a strange omission in this day and age.
Film-specific extras are limited to an audio commentary by famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and film critic Odie Henderson of www.rogerebert.com, as well as a booklet containing a new essay by Teresa Heffernan, a professor at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Tyson and Henderson’s commentary is sometimes fascinating from a scientific perspective but has little else to recommend it. Henderson attempts to provide some stability as a moderator but is generally content to give the mic to Tyson when he wants it, and Tyson does provide the most interesting observations. Tyson even braves discussions about framing techniques, often providing a fresh perspective whereas Henderson seems reactionary (meaning: he more often than not reacts, not always intelligently, to what he sees on screen). There are moments when it’s obvious the two men are getting caught up in watching the film, with the result that long patches of silence crash in. During these times, the sound from the film is not raised to fill the void, though an occasional effect does get through—a problem that is more pronounced when the sound from the film bleeds into the discussion between the commentators. One has to wonder whether the two men met beforehand to discuss the commentary, given the length of time that often goes by without speech. Tyson clearly feels at home discussing the film’s science, but during moments where little of scientific import is going on, Henderson does not always step up to the plate, though it’s during these moments that biographical information about the filmmakers and stars would have been most appropriate. It takes a while for Tyson and Henderson to warm to each other enough to carry on a conversation about the film, and the track never truly takes off. In short, the commentary is something of an awkward train wreck.
Heffernan’s essay is well written and informative, coming in a full-color, 16-page booklet printed on thick, glossy paper stock. The booklet begins with the chapter titles for the disc, followed by cast and crew credits. Heffernan’s essay is next and takes up the remainder of the booklet. Heffernan, who has written books about post-apocalyptic literature and feminism and racism in cinema, covers all the bases and then some, and her work is punctuated by imagery from the film.
When the disc is popped into the player, trailers for other Film Movement releases immediately begin to play. These include Rainer Warner Fassbinder’s Kamikaze ’89 (1982), Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop (1989), and Kitano’s Boiling Point (1990), as well as a promo for Film Movement. Other trailers that can be selected from the disc’s special features menu include Antonia’s Line (1995), The Pillow Book (1996), and Schneider vs. Bax (2015). Most important of all, however, is the trailer for The Quiet Earth, which clocks in at exactly 1 minute. Note that this is not an original trailer but rather one constructed for a recent re-release of the film.
The Final Word:
The Quiet Earth is a decent film; nothing great, nothing terrible, but a pleasant-enough time filler thanks to a lead performance from Bruno Lawrence. The transfer is middling, however. Scenes of high detail are often offset by scenes of surprising waxiness, thanks to overuse of noise reduction tools. And the lack of grain means that the film doesn’t look as filmic as it should. There are a few extras, including an excellent booklet and an embarrassing audio commentary that might be worth listening to for all the wrong reasons.
Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are both currently available.
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