The Quiet Earth










The Quiet Earth (1985) is an enchanting film. It doesn't have the usual trappings of sci-fi: spaceships in full-throttle, eerie music as in Soderbergh's Solaris. It's quiet enough, and this aura hovers throughout the film: initially it's just one main character, a scientific experiment gone wrong, and a vast stretch of a planet with traces of human activity, mysteriously depopulated not by mass murder, disease or extinction--but something else. 

It feels like Walking Dead: you're right in the middle of things, and the entire plot is in no rush to provide explanations. (I think Lost also operates on the same plot, but I haven't had the time to watch even a single episode.) In Walking Dead, which I watch once in a while, dismissing the chronological order, the "walkers" have been present right from the pilot episode (correct me if I'm wrong), and this made them appear in every way natural, without much back story; in the same way, the Quiet Earth allures the viewer because it swerves from being too chatty about numbers and science in general, and instead concentrates on the limitless possibilities of a depopulated earth.

Of course, the possibilities are exciting. One is left to own all the material wealth in the world, but what really plagued me while watching the film is: why, of all people, is Zac Hobson the only person left? I think of it as a form of human exceptionalism, and naturally the idea made him mad, declaring himself "the President of this Quiet Earth" in front of human-size figures of important people like Elizabeth II, Adolf Hitler, and the Pope, among the others. His being an exception doesn't disturb him as it disturbs the audience; it just puzzles him, the way scientists are puzzled about hypotheses and failed experiments.

Later on, we'll learn that Zac knew this was coming, that he wanted out of it by committing suicide the night before the event happened, but he didn't think he'd come off it alive. As he wanders all across the setting (New Zealand wasn't mentioned, but it was implied) he'll meet Joanne and later on, Api. 

Zac and Joanne met as if they were estranged friends, hugging each other affectionately, but it's probably born out of that longing for human contact. I initially assumed Joanne is also a scientist (or, in the scene where she visits a hospital, a doctor of some sort) and that she knows something about Project Flashlight. It turns out that she was just as bewildered as Api, the Maori who cornered Zac while driving into a cul-de-sac.

The sudden appearance of these two characters bothered me most probably since an ending has already formed in my head, and I was convinced right from the start that it would happen: Zac philosophizes, goes crazy, decries humanity, and dies in vain. With this sequence in mind, the Presidential speech is likely to be the penultimate scene in the film, and that everything will go downhill before his death. But  what happened was at least the good kind of unsettling: Zac needed this chance to meet with other people to commiserate with, to regain his sanity and think ahead. 

What the film wants us to think about isn't the technicality of a scientific explanation. Sure, this would spark debate and would incite the scientific community about the validity of such figures, of how can it be possible, but this has been the predicament of science since time immemorial. What the film achieves is adding the element of uncertainty in the role of human existence in Earth, that at some point all we can do is try to figure things out, and whether we have succeeded or not, later on, we are left to watch what happens. The film doesn't want to debunk anything, nor does it want to posit science as the only solution. It doesn't strive to answer hundreds of fundamental questions life has to offer with a yes or a no. The film wants us to see the uncertainty clouding the surface.