1985’s The Quiet Earth was written by Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence, and Sam Pillsbury; it was directed by Geoff Murphy. It is (loosely) based on the novel of the same name by Craig Harrison. It stars Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge, and Peter Smith.
Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence), a scientist working on Project Flashlight, isn’t there at the New Zealand Flashlight facility on the morning of July 5th. That’s when the project will be tested. The effects of the test are obvious. To quote Zac:
[quote] “Zac Hobson, July 5th. One: there has been a malfunction in Project Flashlight with devastating results. Two: it seems I am the only person left on Earth. ” [quote]
Project Flashlight was an international effort by the Western alliance to create a source of broadcast power. At least that was the official purpose. Zac had become convinced the Americans were holding back information. Perhaps they were. Perhaps that was the reason that the Project appears to have disappeared every living animal on the planet.
Zac sets up a radio broadcast in the hope that other survivors will join him. While he waits, he soon realizes that circumstances have provided him with an unparalleled opportunity for self-indulgence. Any material thing he could want — a mansion, hideous 1980s clothes, expensive booze — is his for the taking. All save human companionship.
Madness ensues but eventually Zac is able to drag himself out of the depths of despair. With nothing else to occupy him, he continues with a personal research project: trying to figure how Project Flashlight did what it did.
It’s only after he has abandoned all hope of finding companionship that he is approached by a second survivor, Joanne (Alison Routledge). The two barely have time to become companions and then lovers when a third survivor Api (Peter Smith), appears and joins the group.
Comparing stories, the trio discover what it is they have in common: all of them died at the very moment Project Flashlight was activated. Api was being drowned by an angry friend; Joanne was being electrocuted by her hairdryer; Zac was committing suicide with an overdose of pills. Why this would make them immune is unclear, but it is the sole factor shared by all three survivors.
Joanne is fond of both men and while she is more fond of Api than of Zac, she would be quite happy to settle down with both. This could be a polyamorous idyll save for one thing: Project Flashlight is still running, its effects on the laws of physics are escalating, and the trio may soon join the rest of the human race in extinction.
Zac has a plan to prevent this. It’s a plan that requires a human sacrifice.
Ah, the Cold War, when the only thing more concerning than what the Other Side was up to was what one’s supposed allies were planning to inflict on one. This would be the era when homicidal French agents were slaughtering their way across New Zealand and when anxieties over visiting US ships (which might make New Zealand a legitimate target during WWIII) inspired New Zealand’s futile 1987 nuclear weapon ban. In these days of international accord such anxieties are of course foreign to us, but they explain a lot about the thinking behind this movie.
If there were three survivors (at least) in New Zealand, and if there were the typical survival rate, then there could have been 4500 survivors worldwide. More than enough to re-establish the species! If only they can find each other, which (as the movie makes clear) is not a straightforward task. There’s also the minor complication that the death of all other animals (and the dialogue suggests it really is all animals, the birdsong we hear in one scene aside, would have destabilized the ecology of the whole planet, possibly dooming all complex life forms — and incidentally, whatever was left of humanity.
The director opted for a quiet, tightly focused story about a handful of people rather than a CGI-laden spectacle (which would have been more expensive and quite possibly beyond the resources of the New Zealand film industry circa 1985). He also didn’t go the obvious route of two men clashing over the last woman. That had been done.
Zac, Joanne, and Api take a more civilized approach.
When the film was first released, viewers were, as I recall, puzzled by the ending of this film, which I will not spoil1. Decades later, The Quiet Earth stands as an unappreciated Cold War classic. I enjoyed watching it.
The Quiet Earth is available from your favourite purveyor of movies. Maybe.
1: Still not the weirdest 1980s SF movie. That would be Liquid Sky.