The Quiet Earth Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed the UK Region 0 release of The Quiet Earth, a striking SF film made in New Zealand in 1985, released on a bare-bones budget disc.

Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence), a scientist employed on the multinational venture Project Flashlight, wakes up one morning to find himself alone. Totally alone. He is apparently the last person on Earth.

The Quiet Earth is at its best in its opening half hour, where Lawrence is alone on screen. Murphy and his crew conjure up a compellingly strange atmosphere. Kettles are left to boil, bathwater pours through a ceiling, a plane has fallen from the sky. Lawrence ably conveys a sense of liberation, of a man given sole use of the world’s biggest toyshop. But his attempts to entertain himself are desperate attempts to stave off increasing loneliness, depression and guilt. He feels guilt at his part in Project Flashlight, an attempt to unleash energy from subatomic particles, which has not only removed virtually everyone from Planet Earth but has made the fabric of the Universe itself unstable. At his lowest ebb, he considers suicide.

Then he meets another survivor, Joanne (Alison Routledge). They are drawn together at first from relief at finding another human being alive, and this soon turns into a sexual relationship. Then Api (Peter Smith), a Maori, turns up. (There is a reason why these three have survived the catastrophe while others didn’t, but I’ll leave it to you to watch the film and find out.) At this point, the film becomes more conventional as a romantic triangle takes shape, and the pace lapses. The ending is very strange indeed, though entirely logical.

Routledge and Smith give entirely able performances, but the film belongs to Bruno Lawrence, who is also credited as one of the screenwriters. British-born (Worthing in 1941) but resident in New Zealand from early childhood, he was ubiquitous in Kiwi cinema from its late-70s revival to his untimely death from cancer in 1995. Although Lawrence worked occasionally in Australia, he was never taken up by Hollywood. Bald and unprepossessing, he was hardly the stuff of a handsome leading man, but his range as an actor was considerable. Equally at home in contemporary or historical roles, he was at his best as basically ordinary men in crisis. New Zealander cinema would have been much the poorer without him. Among the three bit parts credited is Anzac Wallace, who played the title character in Geoff Murphy’s earlier film Utu, in which Lawrence co-starred.

Murphy (credited here as Geoffrey rather than the usual Geoff) made some good films at home, but failed to flourish overseas. Apart from the professional if faceless Young Guns 2, his Hollywood films have been at best mediocre and at worst disastrous. His most recent credit is as a second-unit director on The Lord of the Rings. Serving as first assistant director here is Lee Tamahori, who began his directing career with Once Were Warriors.

We’re in budget DVD land with this all-regions release from Pegasus, and you should be able to pick this up for £5.99 or less. At that price it’s worth considering, but I’d pass if it were on sale for much more. The transfer is full-frame, open-matte from an intended ratio of 1.75:1. (That’s an unusual ratio, but one which quite a few British, Australian and New Zealander films of the time were shot in. Having checked a 35mm print of The Quiet Earth, I can verify that it’s the correct one for this film.) James Bartle’s camerawork shows up quite well, with better shadow detail than the Arthouse VHS release I compared it with. (Lawrence’s full-frontal nude scene shows up better, for one thing, though I realise not everyone will wish to know that…) However, there was a tendency to blur on movement, which may be more noticeable on less forgiving equipment such as a PC monitor. Some of this may be down to a lowish bitrate, 5.6 Mbps. However, it’s generally acceptable. I’d suggest owners of widescreen TVs zoom the picture to 16:9.

The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, which would seem to be a direct port of the theatrical Dolby Stereo mix. Given the limitations of the format, it’s quite an adventurous mix, with several directional effects. The surround tends to be given over to John Charles’s music score.

There are nine chapter stops, eight of which are on the scene selection menu. (Logical, if you think about it: if you want the first chapter, play the film from the start.) This is hardly adequate for a film of just under an hour and a half. The final chapter runs 24 minutes!

The only extra is a stills gallery, displayed as a menu of eight thumbnails. You can’t view each picture in turn, unfortunately – you have to select each one individually from the menu. No trailer is included, even though one certainly existed according to the BBFC website.

The Quiet Earth only had a limited release in British cinemas and did no business. However, it’s a film that people have since discovered on video and TV and has made an impression. It shows once again that it’s quite possible to make adult, intelligent science fiction on a lowish budget without elaborate special effects. This DVD could be much better, but as it’s so cheap, it’ll do until a better version arrives.


Updated: Oct 12, 2003

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