The Quiet Earth is a 1985 science fiction post-apocalyptic film directed by Geoff Murphy and made in New Zealand.
In the film a scientist awakens to find himself as apparently the only person left alive in the world after an experiment he had been working on malfunctioned and it depicts how he discovers, adjusts and for a while is driven mad by this new empty world and his interactions with two other survivors that he meets.
The experiment he was working on as a part of a research group was called Project Flashlight and involved the creation of an energy grid which was intended to surround the earth and from which aeroplanes and other devices could draw power so that they would never need to land. The point at which the project malfunctioned and all life on Earth appears to have disappeared comes to be referred to as “The Effect”.
It is loosely based on the 1981 science fiction novel of the same name written by Craig Harrison and has been called an unofficial remake of the 1959 film The World, the Flesh and the Devil and also has in some ways a similar set-up to the film Z for Zachariah (2015), based on Robert C. O’Brien’s book, also of the same name. All three films depict the tensions, conflicts and difficulties of a love triangle in a largely empty post-apocalyptic world between a white male, a white female and a black male.
The Quiet Earth and The World, the Flesh and the Devil are at times quite overt in considering the effects of racial conflict and difference, whereas in Z for Zachariah the conflicts between the characters is in part more expressed via their differing faiths in religion or science and logic.
Although fairly nominally a science fiction genre film, The Quiet Earth is not a spectacle, action and special effects filled film, nor does it have a blockbuster-like pace, while it is also not slowly paced or overly arthouse-like and has a notable conventional accessibility, albeit couple with an independent film making spirit and a certain non-conventional ambiguity in terms of what has actually happened in the film and its ending.
As a whole the film is also ambiguous about whether the trio are the only survivors or have they possibly died and entered a different reality to the rest of the world:
“I get the feeling that we’re either dead or in a different universe… The Effect happened at the exact moment of death and that’s why we survived.”
It is also at a remove from a number of 1980s post-apocalyptic films such as Mad Max (1979) which are nearer to action films and often depicted warriors battling their way through an arid wasteland or desert; in The Quiet Earth the main character is not a handsome, muscled hero or anti-hero but rather something of an everyman placed in extraordinary circumstances. Reflecting this on the morning when he wakes up in a now empty world he is initially shown driving to work in a conservative suit and tie.
Along with Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet (1984) it could be connected with a wider genre that is known as the “Empty City” film, although in The Quiet Earth it is the whole world which is empty and the events of the film are not purely based in urban areas.
As in Night of the Comet the post-apocalypse is largely shown as not being all that unpleasant as a world to live in, as material goods and even to a degree civilisation’s infrastructure and utilities – power etc – remain at least for a while largely undamaged and still functioning in both films. Also, in both films there are not masses of the deceased shown; in Night of the Comet the disappeared population seems to have been turned into red dust and in The Quiet Earth they have simply disappeared.
However in contrast to Night of the Comet when Zac Hobson, the main character in The Quiet Earth, realises that he can do whatever he likes in this new empty world, his resulting actions are not presented so much as purely joyful fun at the mall but rather eventually as the breakdown and dysfunction that have resulted from his loneliness and also the guilt and acceptance of his own culpability in regards to what has happened the world. There is a sense that initially it is fun to be able to “play” with all the machinery etc left behind in the world (he drives a real train as though it is a toy train etc) but ultimately such activities prove empty and the film appears to question if you will lose your sanity if there is nobody else to affirm it.
Consequently he is shown playing the saxophone down a city road at night, still dressed in his suit now coupled with a police hat, seemingly oblivious to the pouring rain. He also shoots out the television in his luxury hotel room when he becomes frustrated and annoyed by a television recording of a government official talking about the duty to carry out technological advance.
He declares “I’m taking over” and dressed in a woman’s negligee he sets up a PA to broadcast to the hotel’s grounds, which he has filled with cardboard cutouts of leaders and cultural icons (as an aside, although it looks like he’s living of a life of luxury, I did find myself wandering the likes of “What happens when he needs to change his sheets and/or all the clean ones have been used or gone mildewy?”).
Standing on the balcony overlooking the cutouts he makes a speech about dedicating his scientific knowledge to developing projects which could be used for evil purposes:
“For the common good they said… How easy to believe in the common good, when that belief is rewarded with wealth, status and power.”
And goes on to talk about how hard it is to believe in the common good when the awesome forces he has helped to create have been put in the hands of mad men (at which point the electricity supply closes down):
“I’ve been condemned to live.”.
After this and carrying out a rampage born of his frustrations and possibly self-loathing, he finally regains his balance after realising he has driven heavy industrial machinery over a child’s pushchair and even though it is empty after this he appears to find some form of redemption.
Connected to his possible redemption there are number of different possible readings of the film; the story could be read in a fairly straightforwardly if ambiguous manner or alternatively it could be that the events in the film are a nightmare that a cracked Zac has conjured or that he is in his own form of hell after attempting to take his own life, possibly due to the guilt he feels about his role in the Project Flashlight experiment and the corruption of his scientific ideals. This hell may be part of a form of atoning or punishment for the damage caused by the project he created. It is not a conventional brimstone and fire one but rather represented by an empty world where after being tormented by his loneliness he finally meets somebody who may be able to provide him with companionship and even physical comfort but she is taken from him when she is swept up by another man and he takes his life one more time.
This possible act of self-immolation in the film happens when he sacrifices his own life by driving a lorry full of explosives into a research lab, which is part of the still functioning energy grid that is creating a world threatening instability, in order to hopefully secure a future for the world and the other two people he has met, who have bonded and formed a couple. He appears to destroy the lab just as The Effect happens once again.
In the final scene he is shown as waking from this alone in another reality and an alien landscape; this could be considered a new form of hell, one in which he is likely to be forever without companionship or even the material comforts of the consumer goods left behind after the apocalypse on earth. This ending also leaves the film ambiguous about the fate of his two companions on earth and it does not tell if they have been saved to become a new Adam and Eve or will be consumed by the Earth’s rapidly growing instability.
- The Quiet Earth trailer
- The World, the Flesh and the Devil trailer
- Mad Max (1979) trailer
- Night of the Comet trailer
- Z for Zachariah (2015) trailer
- The Quiet Earth – Arrow Blu-ray release
- The World, the Flesh and the Devil DVD
Elsewhere at A Year In The Country:
- Night of the Comet – Shopping and Respect in “Empty Cities” at the End of the World – Part 1: Wanderings 4/52
- Night of the Comet – Post-Apocalyptic Positivity in “Empty Cities” at the End of the World – Part 2: Wanderings 6/52
- Z For Zachariah: Audio Visual Transmission Guide #45/52a