With good reason, 2001: A Space Odyssey is often held up as the consummate hard sci-fi classic. From its accurate depiction of space travel (Peter Norvig, former chief of computational sciences at NASA’s Ames Research Center, praised the movie for “[paying] attention to science” as opposed to most other films’ fast and loose approach) to its memorable battle of wits between man and machine to its surreal “Jupiter and Beyond” final sequence, it’s something of The Godfather of sci-fi movies. It checks all the boxes for what makes a good genre film whilst simultaneously redefining that very genre. While many other similar films of the era have become terribly dated, there’s very little about 2001 that doesn’t hold up today, and even if the space program suddenly makes a fantastic leap that finally, comically dates the film, there’s still plenty about it that will hold up for generations to come. If it is the Godfather of sci-fi movies, though, then The Quiet Earth is surely the Casino: subtler, more introspective, more driven by interpersonal struggle and internal conflict than external forces. It may not be as well regarded, or even as well known; but it stands toe-to-toe with 2001 as a classic of thoughtful, serious science fiction, and it deserves to be more well-known and renowned beyond its current cult reputation.
Like 2001, The Quiet Earth is split into parts (albeit only two) and built around a central enigma. Rather than contact with benevolent aliens, though, the mystery at the center of The Quiet Earth is both more immediate and more disturbing. At exactly 6:12 am on July 5th, 1985, the sun briefly darkens and scientist Zac Hobson awakens to discover that he’s the last man in New Zealand. What’s more, the source of his isolation doesn’t appear to be any sort of plague, natural disaster, or anything with an accompany rational explanation: Exploring the city of Hamilton, he discovers a downed airplane with no bodies inside; crashed vehicles without their drivers; and his workplace—a government research facility—bereft of its armed guards. Slipping inside, he discovers his first sign of there ever having been any other life in the world besides himself: One of his coworkers is slumped dead over a control panel, apparently electrocuted in the midst of executing a computer program. As the monitor informs Zac, his coworker was successful, and that program—Project Flashlight—is now up and running.
The remainder of the first half sees Zac attempting—and failing—to make contact with any other humans, pushing him closer and closer to the brink of a nervous breakdown. It all culminates in an insane rampage during which Zac—wearing nothing but a woman’s slip—shoots up the city with a shotgun, proclaims himself God, and attempts to commit suicide before the site of a crushed baby carriage snaps him back to reality. A trippy sequence of Zac swimming in the ocean segues us into part two, in which Zac’s radio broadcast is heard by Joanne, the last woman in New Zealand. The two settle into a sort of ersatz marriage, with Joanne becoming Zac’s wife/assistant/student as he makes a serious effort to understand what’s happened. All he knows for sure is that Project Flashlight—a worldwide initiative by multiple superpowers to create a global energy grid, and for which he was chief physicist—worked and that its activation both coincided with the mass disappearance and altered certain universal constants.
The couple’s domesticity is threatened by the arrival of Api, a truck driver for whom Joanne feels an immediate and intense attraction, despite his esoteric references to being a murderer. A discussion of what led to the initial Event reveals a key piece of information: All three survivors were at the moment of death at 6:12 am. Joanne was electrocuted by a faulty wall socket, and Api was on the losing end of a particularly brutal fist fight. Zac? As it turns out, Zac had a feeling that Project Flashlight might lead to some “end of the world” stuff, and, despondent about his role in it, took a fatal overdose of pills. The revelation of his possible role in ending the world doesn’t sit well with Joanne, pushing her even further into Api’s arms just as Api himself begins contemplating if maybe he shouldn’t eliminate the hypotenuse in this particular love triangle. Not that he’d get to enjoy it for very long—if Zac’s calculations are right, another, bigger Event is due to happen, and the three of them will have to pull together for a very insane mission back to the research facility if any of them wants to survive.
The Quiet Earth has quite a bit going for it. Director Geoff Murphy shows off the cinematic eye that he’d later put to use as Peter Jackson’s second unit director on his Lord of the Rings trilogy, creating a New Zealand that looks and feels as lonely as the characters populating it—the experience of watching The Quiet Earth is like viewing a sunset all alone from a wide and empty plateau. Rather than try to go toe-to-toe with 2001 in the special effects department and lose spectacularly, he opts for a subtler approach, limiting the SFX to two simple sequences and one spectacular set piece. The sequence showing the characters’ subjective experience of surviving The Event, in particular, is a masterstroke of understatement, depicting it as a soothing, swirling red vortex at the end of a black tunnel. Equally subtle are the performances turned in by each of the lead actors, all of whom exploit little hints dropped in the script to bring their characters to life. It’d have been easy for this to be an instance of a sci-fi film in which the characters are two-dimensional cutouts essentially there to act as catalysts for bigger ideas. Rather, everyone in The Quiet Earth is a fully formed person instilled with robust life—not through big, grand acts or speeches but in the little things they do, the faces they make, the way they move.
On an analytical level, The Quiet Earth has both a more pessimistic and more optimistic view of humanity than 2001. While that film is concerned with man’s ability to evolve, his place in the cosmos, and his ultimate fate in the universe, The Quiet Earth asks the rather pointed question of how humanity can tackle any one of those topics when we’re still so screwed up. Similar to Solaris, the science here isn’t a grand achievement but hubris of the worst kind. We still stab one another in the back, engage in petty squabbles, and reach for the biggest, quickest fix, regardless of the consequences (or without even considering the consequences); how are we supposed to responsibly handle technology that alters the laws of the universe without responsibly handling our own lives, first? Though Joanne and Api lay the blame for Project Flashlight’s failure squarely at Zac’s feet—where it at least partially belongs—the trio’s paranoid, backhanded dynamics become a microcosm for the greater problems that spawned Project Flashlight in the first place.
At the same time, though, there’s a basic optimism at play among all this nihilism. If the question of The Quiet Earth is “Can we ever move beyond this?” then it at least seems to offer a tentative “yes.” Like 2001, The Quiet Earth doesn’t mind blending some philosophy with its science, and it’s here that the film’s more slanted views on humanity’s ultimate fate show their softer side. Zac’s final decision to take responsibility for the whole mess may be reckless and suicidal—literally and figuratively—and echoes his initial decision to solve problems by ending his own life, but at least this time it’s more than a hollow, selfish gesture. That half-measure seems to be responsible for Zac’s fate, which finds him in a place that, if not quite Heaven, isn’t quite Hell, either. It’s a strange, amazing, esoteric ending for an amazing, esoteric movie, one that—like 2001—is comfortable giving the viewer just enough information and allowing the individual’s own approach to science and life fill in the rest.
The Quiet Earth has a much better reputation at home than abroad. It swept the 1987 New Zealand Film and TV Awards, and its final sequence contains one of the most iconic images in Kiwi and Aussie pop culture. The very things that make it such a success, though, are the same qualities that prevented it from a successful exportation to the West—this was, after all, the same era in which American audiences were flocking to Rocky IV, and the same year that The Quiet Earth was released, Back to the Future gave us a much more optimistic and palatable look at sci-fi. Though its reputation has improved with time and it’s garnered a cult following—Neil deGrasse Tyson is an ardent fan—it’s still failed to reach the heights of popularity here enjoyed by other films of its ilk. It’s a real shame, but, hopefully, that’ll change with time, and it can finally take its rightful place Stateside as a classic of the sci-fi genre.