Quiet Earth (The) (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (18th June 2018).
The Film

The Quiet Earth (Geoffrey Murphy, 1985)

Scientist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) awakens in a motel room. He discovers that the clock has stopped, no radio stations seem to be broadcasting, and no-one answers the telephone. Quickly, Hobson is forced into the realisation that he seems to be alone in the world: all other life, not just human life, seems to be absent.

Exploring the city, he is faced with homes that are deserted, meals still on the table, like the Marie Celeste; a commercial aeroplane has crashed in the middle of the city. Hobson makes his way to a science facility in the countryside. The facility is his place of employment: Hobson was working on a top secret project, Operation Flashlight, orchestrated by the Americans. The facility is flooded with radiation. Hobson manages to escape and surmises that the triggering of Operation Flashpoint resulted in what he calls ‘The Effect’, a phenomenon which caused Hobson to be left utterly alone, the last man alive.

Hobson soon seizes the opportunities presented by this new world, moving into a swanky upmarket house and taking what he likes from the shops in the local mall. He contemplates suicide, but things change when he encounters another survivor, Joanne (Alison Routledge). Joanne insists that she has also seen other evidence of people who survived, including the corpse of a baby which she claims died after the Effect.

Together, Hobson and Joanne search for other survivors. Hobson also continues his scientific investigations into the Effect, using the labs at the local university to aid him in this. His experiments lead him to believe that the Effect has left the universe ‘not only altered but […] highly unstable’.

One day, Hobson finds himself held at gunpoint by a man in a balaclava. This man soon reveals himself to be a Maori, Api (Pete Smith). Api is friendly, and he teams up with Hobson and Joanne. The trio share their stories and realise that they were all on the cusp of death when the Effect happened.

Sharing his findings with the others, and telling them that he believes that one day soon, a new Effect will be triggered, Hobson soon begins to feel sidelined by Joanne and Api. Hobson continues to work on a plan to prevent another Effect, which will involve one of the group making a supreme act of self-sacrifice.

The film’s premise is, within the genre of science-fiction, recognisable and well-worn. Hobson awakens in a world that seems to be empty; later in the film, he comments that before the Effect, he was a loner and would previously have been pleased of the solitude, but the reality of being alone began to drive him half-mad – until, of course, he and Joanna discovered one another. At first, his actions express a sense of exhilaration at finding himself in what is in effect a playground free from restrictions: Hobson is shown progressing from playing with a child’s train set to driving a real train. However, this exhilaration soon passes and his behaviour becomes increasingly desperate, such as when he dresses in a woman’s underskirt (which becomes a symbol of his desire for female companionship) and sets up cut-outs of various celebrities in the garden of the house he has taken over, addressing these avatars as if he were a dictator. (‘I have dedicated all my scientific knowledge and skill to projects I knew could be put to evil purposes’, he asserts, ‘How easy to believe in the “common good” when that belief is rewarded with status, wealth and power’. He concludes his speech by reflecting, ‘I’ve been condemned to live’.) Before meeting Joanna, he destroys a statue of Christ by blowing it apart with a shotgun and then contemplates suicide, putting the barrel of the shotgun into his mouth before an abrupt edit shows him frolicking naked in the tide, near the coastal house in which he will encounter Joanna for the first time. Whilst more recognisable from science-fiction literature and cinema, the theme of isolation’s impact on the soul, and the consequences of it being shattered by the presence of another, is essentially taken from Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe (1719), the science-fiction stories of the mid-20th Century being a variant of the ‘Robinsonade’/castaway subgenre

Hobson’s acknowledgement of this theme, which could perhaps somewhat tweely be stated as ‘be careful what you wish for’, recalls ‘Time Enough at Last’, the 1959 episode of The Twilight Zone in which bookworm Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) finds himself in a post-apocalyptic world and realises that he now has the freedom to read as much as he likes, free from the prejudices of others or the pressures of work and family life. However, Bemis is dismayed when he breaks his reading glasses whilst stooping to pick up a book. Similar themes, and imagery depicting isolated protagonists wandering through eerily abandoned cities and small towns, appear in a number of other episodes of The Twilight Zone, including the pilot ‘Where Is Everybody?’ (1959). Likewise, the opening scenes of The Quiet Earth, depicting Hobson’s exploration of an urban environment that is devoid of life of any kind, recall the opening of The Omega Man (1971), Boris Sagal’s adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella I Am Legend, in which Charlton Heston is shown exploring a Los Angeles which is depicted in the film as a ghost town. Most obviously, the relationship between Hobson and Joanna, and how this is complicated by the arrival of Api, resembles Ranald McDougall’s The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959).

At the risk of stating the readily apparent, The Twilight Zone, The Omega Man and other narratives of this type from the late 1950s through to the 1970s (including L Q Jones’ 1975 picture A Boy and His Dog and Jack Smight’s 1977 film Damnation Alley, for example) spoke of the anxieties of the post-atomic Cold War era, in which nuclear annihilation seemed to be just around the corner. The Quiet Earth is similarly concerned with the destructive power of science: the experiment Hobson’s lab was conducting is, as the narrative progresses, revealed to be part of a global experiment that was orchestrated by the Americans. Facilities across the globe were drafted in to help with this experiment, and it seems that none of these facilities were given access to the ‘big picture’: information about the precise nature of this experiment was withheld by the Americans. The Quiet Earth’s criticism of American meddling in the affairs of other nations (particularly New Zealand) has a strong precedent in Roger Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs (1977), which spearheaded the wave of New Zealand film productions of the late 1970s and 1980s, in which an emerging dictatorship in New Zealand is supported by visiting US troops (led by Warren Oates). (Arrow have recently released Sleeping Dogs on Blu-ray; our review of this release can be found here.)

To his fellow survivors Joanna and Api, Hobson expresses regret over the fact that he didn’t question what he and his lab were being asked to do; he is remorseful with regards his willingness to follow the orders of the Americans without considering what the larger effects of the experiment would be. To some extent, the rest of the film is about Hobson’s desire to redeem himself, to redress the balance and attempt to undo the harm that the experiment caused. Hobson seems to achieve this with a moment of self-sacrifice at the end of the picture, but the film’s final scene undercuts this – although this final scene is highly ambiguous and, like other aspects of the film’s story, may be read in a number of different ways.

When Hobson encounters Joanna and Api, he discovers that the pre-apocalyptic hierarchies no longer apply. After Joanna storms off following her discovery that Api was involved in the death by suicide of his friend’s wife, Hobson attempts – impotently – to call her back. Meanwhile, his conflict with Api escalates and, when Hobson attempts to issue orders to Api, Api tells Hobson directly that the era of the ‘white boss’ ended with the Effect. (‘Listen, honky, things have changed around here. The white boss went away with the rest of them. There’s just you and me now’, Api tells Hobson.) Api is set against Hobson: where Hobson questions faith in a deity, shooting apart the statue of Christ in the cathedral, Api is shown praying at the grave of a female relative. ‘Where are you?’, Hobson demands of God as he points the gun at the statue of Christ, ‘If you don’t come out, I’ll kill the kid’. Meanwhile, as the film nears its climax, Api suggests he is willing to commit himself to the suicide mission that Hobson eventually carries out: ‘My old kuia’s [grandmother’s spirit] looking after me’, Api tells Joanne.


Video

Taking up just over 28Gb of space on the Blu-ray disc, this 1080p presentation of The Quiet Earth employs the AVC codec. Uncut and running for 90:54 mins, the film is presented in its intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

Detail is good throughout this HD presentation of The Quiet Earth, close-ups in particular containing some pleasing fine detail. There is no damage to speak of. Colours have a depth and consistency to them, and this is evident from the opening shot of a burning red sky in which the sun slowly appears (almost as if in homage to the most famous shot from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia). Contrast is pleasing throughout, with richly defined midtones tapering off into deep, rich blacks. Highlights are nicely balanced too. The encode is strong, ensuring the presentation retains the structure of 35mm film.

Some full-size screengrabs are linked to at the bottom of this page. Click to enlarge them.








Audio

The disc contains two audio options: (i) a LPCM 2.0 track; and (ii) a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Both tracks are rich and with commendable depth, though the 5.1 track adds some atmospheric sound separation without sacrificing any ‘oomph’ within the track. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included. These are easy to read and accurate in transcribing the film’s dialogue.

Extras

The disc includes:
- A commentary by Travis Crawford. Critic Travis Crawford discusses the origins of the film in Craig Harrison’s novel and reflects on its place in New Zealand cinema of the 1980s. He offers an interpretation of the film which emphasises the spiritual content of the source novel.

- ‘Last Man Standing’ (17:08). In a new and exclusive interview, Kim Newman discusses The Quiet Earth in relation to other examples of post-apocalyptic fiction. He explores these narratives as being both a ‘nightmare vision’ and a form of ‘wish fulfilment fantasy’. He suggests the ‘roots’ of this subgenre are in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.

- ‘What is The Quiet Earth?’ (12:45). Critic Bryan Reesman narrates a video essay exploring some of the film’s themes. He compares the film’s closing scene with the closing moments of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and he offers a variety of interpretations of the manner in which the film resolves its narrative.

- Image Gallery (42 images)
.

- Trailer (3:04).

Overall

A memorable, low-key science-fiction picture, The Quiet Earth treads a well-worn path but does so with panache. Though the film is highly reminiscent of many similar films, such as The Omega Man and, particularly, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, The Quiet Earth has its own ‘flavour’. Director Geoff Murphy would go on to find work as a director of action films in Hollywood, making Young Guns II in 1990, Freejack in 1992 and Under Siege 2 in 1995. Though competently made, none of his later films were particularly distinguished, and The Quiet Earth remains the highlight of his career.

Arrow’s new Blu-ray release of the film contains a pleasing HD presentation of the film, which is accompanied by some good new contextual material. This material helps to give the film’s enigmatic narrative a sense of context. This is a pleasing presentation of a film that has developed a strong cult following.





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