I'm a big fan of what they call 'cozy catastrophes'. While I'm a little shaky on the literally definition, the feeling I get is one of tales of immense calamity but not so complete that they destroy everyone and everything except a handful of fortunate unfortunates (or unfortunate fortunates) who either muddle through as best as they can, or else start anew.
I recently, finally got the chance to see a movie that I've been wanting to see ever since it was released–in 1985. That movie, The Quiet Earth, is quite a story. It seems to fit as a cozy catastrophe, although it has the hint of an end-of-the-world story as well. I was captivated by the poster art (excerpted here), but never got the chance to see it when it was new, and what few times over the intervening 21 years I did have the chance to view, it tended to be pre-empted.
What I did know about it was this: A scientist wakes up one June morning to find that everyone about has simply vanished. The world has been left as though everyone vaporized in an instant. The scientist deals with his loneliness and then tries to find out what happened, and if it will happen again.
Well, it is as interesting as that. But now I know it all. Spoilers follow.
On a fine June morning, Zac Hobson, who it develops is a scientist, wakes up to find that he seems to be the only man left alive. As indicated, all humanity (and most animal life) seems to have disintigrated, more or less simultaenously, leaving whatever they were doing in motion; an electric kettle at a gas station is boiling over, automobiles are left stranded in the middle of the road or run off the road, abandoned.
This does not reveal itself immediately; Hobson gets dressed to go to work. Finding nobody anywhere, he eventually arrives at the research station, which seems to be largely concerned with communication (it is dominated by a single huge satellite dish). Entering the station he tries in vain to find any other personnel who will answer, then descends to the actual lab which is underground. He does find one other person, a colleague, slumped over a rather futuristically-styled control panel. When Hobson sits the man up, he finds him horribly disfigured, as though he has been subjected to a lethal dose of energy.
A message on a video screen, cryptic to the viewer but all-informative to Hobson, declares Operation Flashlight Complete. After muttering a curse toward the dead colleague about the project, he allows the body to slump back down on the panel, which sets off alarms; some system is going live, and the lab is about to be flooded with ionizing radiation. The lift closes and locks. Hobson sets off a bomb to make himself a quick escape.
It soon becomes extremely apparent that Hobson seems to be in a world alone, and sets about at first enjoying his freedom and then suffering from his isolation. As he hits rock bottom, he attires himself in a ladies' slip, dresses himself up in a toga, sets up a number of celebrity cardboard cutouts and, in a triumphant speech to them supported by a battery of tape players broadcasting crowd sounds, Hobson proclaims himself President of Earth (as he remarked just shortly before to the Adolf Hitler cutout, "You've had your turn"). As the power grid, which had been going along for more than two weeks by this point finally packs up, the viewer realizes that Hobson isn't being megalomaniacal so much as he's punishing himself; he feels he's had something key to do with what has happened, and is being suitably condemned for his actions.
It's not until he stumbles, dazed from his isolation, into a church–holding a gun up to a crucified Christ, calling God to come out "or the kid gets it", and then blowing the figure to simthereens when God doesn't show–that he begins to recover. It is as though his madness has blown itself out.
Gathering supplies (including a generator), he moves into a sumptuous modern house overlooking the sea. In getting his bearings he begins to analyze the world about him, seeing what in the space-time fabric has shifted (if anything), he begins to rediscover his sanity.
Then Joanne, a cute redhead appears. End Part One, cue Part Two.
In Part Two, Zac and Joanne do a sort of awkward dance on the way to physical consummation (they, after all, are the last woman/man on Earth). Enroute they do more exploring, trying to find anyone else who may have survived, and Hobson does more research.
We learn how Hobson factors into what he figures happened. We learn that Operation Flashlight was an international energy project that was meant to establish an energy grid surrounding the whole planet, that airplanes could tap into and never need fuel. Hobson guesses that data and information they were getting from the Americans were incomplete, perhaps due to secrecy concerns, and that those gaps produced the effect that had caused everyone to vanish and may now be responsible for pulsating in the Sun. His earlier attempts at self-destruction relate to his sense of guilt for not speaking up and for complicity in being involved in the project.
We also learn that, according to Hobson's calculations, instead of electrons having only one constant charge, they have two and oscillate between them. The fabric of the Universe may not have merely been changed, it may have been made fragile.
Then, just as Zac and Joanne have become more or less comfortable together, strife arrives in the form of a very macho Maori: Api. At first suspicious, he holds Zac at gunpoint until he can meet him and Joanne together–a suspicion that melts as soon as Api realizes there's no threat.
But Api seems to have a cloud about him, and we soon find out why; in our first clue as to what happened when the Flashlight effect occurred, Api relates that, at what apparently was the moment of the event, a friend was trying very hard to kill him, and was just about to succeed. On the cusp of death, traveling down that tunnel toward the light, he returns to his corpus, his freind vanished into thin air.
Api eventually admits that his friend was trying to kill him because Api had, as he said, killed his wife, but doesn't explain the cirumstance. This doesn't go down well with Joanne, until it is explained that Api's friends wife had come on to him, and he had rejected her, apparently precipitating her suicide, which Api (and apparently his friend) found himself responsible for. We subsequently find that, at the moment of the event, Joanne was being electrocuted by a short in her hair dryer, and we find for the first time that Zac was attempting suicide over his conflicted feelings about Operation Flashlight.
At the same time that Zac is finding out that another full event is approaching, tensions between The Last Woman and The Two Last Men On Earth reach a head, and Zac, galvanized into action by what he has found, leaves the two in a frustrated rage when Api will not listen to him. Api, thinking it's a rage over his relationship with Joanne, gives chase with the aim of settling it once and for all. Joanne, furious with both of them, chases them down.
After tempers have cooled, the problem of the immenent repeat of the event is explained to all and Zac proposes a solution; destruction of his lab, which is a support point for the worldwide energy grid. While it's not clear if that will terminate the Flashlight effect there seems little else to try. Gathering two truckloads of gelignite high explosive, the three set off for the lab.
As they near the lab, Joanne transfers to Api's truck after he uses it to clear a particularly dangerous obstacle. Within about a mile of the lab a sensor Zac carries begins to go off; the lab is still being drenched in ionizing radiation: "it's like you'd be walking into a microwave oven". However, Api has turned off the 2-way; he and Joanne are busy getting into each other. After another harrowing vehicle interplay he does stop them and explains the problem.
Stopping at a guard station overlooking the lab, Hobson explains that he will go back to the city and get a robot that can pilot the truck in. Once gone, Api and Joanne waste no time in getting generous helpings of each other, but Api's actions don't seem so much in spite of Zac as they are in anticipation of his own end; he sees himself as driving the truck into the station. Joanne is inscrutable at this point...is she indulging herself or figuring out how to play post-apocalyptic head games with these two men.
Zac trumps them both. Suddenly, the truck is heard heading for the lab; they realize at once that Zac couldn't have returned that quickly. They watch as he drives the truck alongside the labe building. The ground under the truck, which is the ceiling to the underground lab, gives way, presumably weakened by the damage Zac had to do earlier to escape. The gelignite goes up, destroying the station. We see a tunnel...
And Zac Hobson wakes up on a beach. Is it on Earth? Is it even in this Universe, this reality? The end of the movie will leave one questioning where the characters have been all the time: was the world after the Effect the world that we live in, or were Zac, Api, and Joanne the ones to remove to a different Universe?
I like movies that don't resolve all the loose ends, that leave parts open to cogitate upon. Of course, that just doesn't mean any incomplete story is a good thing; theres a way to go about it. The Quiet Earth does it just the right way, by giving my mind grist for expansion, the way a Zen koan causes one to try to leap beyond logic into purposeful illogic.
And the end will gently blow you away.