What exactly is it about the ‘last man on earth’ film that continues to pluck at our heartstrings, whilst wreaking simultaneous havoc on our minds?
Is it the hellish scenario of suddenly waking up and finding yourself plunged into the throes of despair upon the realisation of being alone? Perhaps it’s the nostalgia-induced yearning for a yesterday that no amount of wishing will ever bring back? Or could it be that whilst the idea of an all-out cataclysmic event in your lifetime seems unlikely, at the same time you can never entirely rule it out?
Whatever the case may be, our longstanding fixation with cinema’s soul survivor seems to have never wavered – and nor does it appear to be going extinct any time soon either. Deserted and cast aside by humanity – and left to fend for themselves in a new and strange environment, we as the audience can only surrender as defenceless onlookers as these accidental heroes navigate through a post-apocalyptic wasteland of lifeless cities and barren streets.
Whichever way you choose to look at it, the lucky or unlucky individual must quickly learn to come to terms with their affliction…lest the physical and psychological horror of their bleak predicament be theirs, as well as their entire species undoing.
That’s a whole lot of pressure for one to have to carry on their shoulders; and as you may well expect, this is not always held with a high degree of finesse. Hurtling through a rollercoaster of heightened emotions, the accidental hero transitions through everything from shock, panic, grief, disillusionment, self-destruction, delirium and denial. All-the-while toeing the precarious tightrope that separates the rational mind from the deranged, their crusade for redemption is often fraught with pitfalls. With all the time in the world for self-reflection, they’re often left lamenting the interactivity and the connectivity of a society now rendered obsolete.
For many of us, going to the cinema and surrendering to the fictional universes offered on screen has been a tried and tested way for us to escape the routine banality of our everyday lives. But what can be said about the transition of our lives post-covid – now that cinemas and theatres have been all but boarded shut, and our realities have suddenly become stranger than the fiction we’re more accustomed to seeing up there on the screen?
In the 1985 film The Quiet Earth – New Zealand’s first major science-fiction picture, scientist Zac Hobson (played by eclectic musician and satirical news frontman, Bruno Lawrence – who incidentally also co-wrote the script for the film) awakens to find his alarm clock frozen at 6:12. He peers through the blinds and locates a strikingly unusual red sun hanging low in the summer sky.
How long had he overslept, and what did he suppose had been the cause of the power outage?
Hobson is soon confronted with far more sobering questions on the city bound commute to work – as he dodges a slew of abandoned vehicles sprawled across the middle of the road, or whilst he coasts undisturbed through the once-bustling streets of a forsaken city centre, and as he stumbles upon the incinerated wreckage of a large commercial aircraft that appears to have dropped from the sky.
“The world we were in was almost exactly, but not quite, the same as the old world. A subtle dislocation somehow involving the processes of perception had shaken the normal boundaries out of place. It was hard to detect, like a familiar room in which something is very slightly changed. And it induced the same unease.”
-Excerpt from the novel, The Quiet Earth, by Craig Harrison
Based upon the Craig Harrison novel of the same name that came out five years prior – much like The Twilight Zone’s television pilot episode Where is Everybody?, released in 1959, or a string of American post-apocalyptic films, like The World, the Flesh and the Devil (of which this film has been called an unofficial remake), 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, or finally the 1971 classic, Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston (later remade in 2007 as I am Legend), The Quiet Earth tells the tale of an ordinary man who wakes up to find himself the planet’s sole inhabitant (or, SPOILER ALERT: so it seems).
And yet, what sets this film apart from those aforementioned is the psychological undertones of a guilt-ridden protagonist who is dogged by the likelihood that his own clandestine experiments may well have been the underlying root of the catastrophe.
It’s a nuclear tale on a scale of biblical proportions: an ordinary man of flesh and bone, punished for playing God – and as a result he is banished from the company of others… left to roam through a purgatorial labyrinth, an inanimate void where the hands of the clock remain stuck on 6:12.
Throughout the film, this inciting incident is simply referred to as ‘the effect’ – purportedly the result of the fallout from Project Flashlight: a highly ambitious and top secret experiment to create a global energy grid by Hobson’s employers, The Delenco Corporation. When Hobson returns to the now-abandoned lab and attempts to unravel this mystery, we hear his pre-recorded voice warning of the consequences of the project’s ‘phenomenal destructive potential’.
But how does that explain the apparent mass-disappearance of every living creature?
Part of the genius of The Quiet Earth is director Geoff Murphy’s creative dexterity in balancing comedic elements with those darker, more sombre moments. For instance, in one memorable scene Hobson shuffles down a rainswept city street, donning a police constable’s hat and dark shades, belting out a tune on a saxophone – which is immediately followed by a scene in which an inebriated and visibly distraught Hobson smashes an empty whiskey bottle against his bedroom wall in a fit of drunken rage.
Or the scene where Hobson challenges himself to a game of snooker – taunting himself as if he were two separate rivals, paired with the juxtaposed scene of Hobson slipping on a woman’s silk nightgown – inevitably brought to tears when he catches his own reflection in the mirror and realises he will probably never see another woman again.
Not only do these peaks and troughs of human emotion help to paint a realistic portrait of a character with relatable human flaws, but simultaneously too there is an almost sinfully rewarding voyeuristic pleasure in observing how the protagonist endeavours to make sense of his wretched situation.
Viewing The Quiet Earth again in the middle of a global pandemic, it is particularly sobering (and eerily relatable) to witness Zac Hobson’s emotional and psychological breakdown, as he grapples to come to grips with the gloomy outlook of his solitary predicament.
Having had social distancing suddenly thrust upon us in the real world has meant much more than just a disruptive inconvenience. The lack of connectivity is proving to have an adverse effect upon both our physical and mental well-being; not to mention the overall stress and anxiety afflicted by an invisible airborne menace that we can’t touch nor see.
Indeed for many of us currently trying to navigate through the isolation of our own government-enforced bubble, the restrictive measures on our freedom have become somewhat of a Hobson’s choice; an unfavourable resting place between the hammer and the anvil that has left us feeling vulnerable and defenceless.
But it’s far too easy to draw forlorn comparisons between our contemporary lives post-2020, and the plights of these largely fictional characters on screen.
Perhaps the real moral lessons to be extracted from these tales are the overall themes of rebirth and redemption; of reassessing and reevaluating the way in which we go about our everyday lives, and the very-real environmental and ecological impact that every one of us has on this planet. The message often lies discretely up there amongst all the chaos and the rubble… but it’s there nonetheless.
Next time we catch ourselves saying “The world’s problems are all so overwhelmingly large – what can I alone possibly do to make a difference?”, we might rethink the power we have for change as individuals.
Watch the video essay here.