Department of Theatre and Film
“I have been condemned to live”: History, Allegory, and a New (Zealand) Tomorrow in Geoff Murphy’s "The Quiet Earth"
On 10 July 1985, the environmental activist group Greenpeace’s flagship vessel, the Rainbow Warrior, was bombed by a team of agents trained and acting under the auspices of the French government’s Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE). This state-sponsored terrorist attack—which occurred while the ship was docked at New Zealand’s largest port, Auckland Harbour, and killed one crewmember and sunk the ship—was an attempt by the French government to stop Greenpeace from protesting France’s continued nuclear testing on islands in the South Pacific.1 Rather than bringing a halt to Greenpeace’s activity in the South Pacific, the Rainbow Warrior bombing served to gain public favor for the organization and grow the anti-nuclear campaign in New Zealand, a movement that was “already galvanized” by the prohibition on nuclear warships in the country’s waters set forth by the Labour government headed by Prime Minister David Lange (King 443). In February 1985, just months before the bombing, the government had refused access to all nuclear-powered ships. This decision caused a major schism in relations with the United States and ended the defense pact—commonly known as ANZUS—forged between Australia, NZ, and the United States.2 Due to the Lange government’s radical anti-nuclear stance, New Zealand, which had seen its relationship with Britain diminish over the course of the twentieth century, was now cut adrift by the U.S as well.3
Released just three months after the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior, The Quiet Earth (Geoff Murphy, 1985) is the first internationally distributed science fiction film to be funded by and consisting of a largely New Zealand production cast and crew. Based on a 1981 novel with the same title by British-born writer Craig Harrison, The Quiet Earth is the story of a Pākehā (New Zealander of European descent) scientist, Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence), waking to find that the U.S.-led and funded Project Flashlight, which he helped work on, may have caused the annihilation of all living beings in New Zealand: a phenomenon that Zac calls “the Effect.” In an allegorical reference to New Zealand’s cooled relationship with world powers Britain, the United States, and France, Zac discovers that he cannot contact anyone in the Northern Hemisphere, suggesting that that he may be the last human on earth. For the next few months, Zac searches for any sign of living beings and finds nothing, his complete isolation playing out in the otherwise physically welcoming environment and temperate climate of New Zealand; no ghouls chase him through the empty landscape, no monsters wait in the shadows. What plagues him is his own mental decay. As Andrew Spicer succinctly explains, in the first part of the film Zac “degenerates from sober rationality trying to communicate with other possible survivors, to unshaven wild man” (194). Wracked by guilt and crazed by his solitary state, Zac, in one of the film’s most memorable sequences, delivers a soliloquy where he proclaims himself leader of this empty world.
After resigning himself to isolation and seemingly having regained some semblance of sanity, Zac comes across two other survivors: a thirty-something Maori man, Api (Pete Smith), and an ethereal young Pākehā woman, Joanne (Alison Routledge). Discussing what they were doing at the time of “the Effect,” the characters come to the conclusion that they stayed alive because all three were dying at the moment it took place: Zac committing suicide due to the guilt associated with his scientific work; Joanne accidentally electrocuting herself with a hairdryer; and Api drowning at the hands of a friend who (wrongly) blames Api for his wife’s death. Through the survivors’ attempts to make sense of this empty world, they also confront the past, particularly in the colonized/colonizer tension between Api and Zac, who are allegorical figures representing binary political positions between the two largest ethnic groups in New Zealand: Zac, as the conservative Pākehā scientist, and Api, an imposing figure who is presented as both a radical and spiritual Maori.
Sexual and racial tension is heightened by the trio’s eerie situation, and during a heated argument in the film’s second act, Api delivers one of the most severe indictments against Zac and his role in causing the destruction of humanity: “First, honky, haven’t you noticed? Things have changed around here,” Api angrily tells Zac. “The white boss grilled with the rest of them. There’s just you and me now.” Despite the ongoing stress in the men’s interaction, by the film’s end the trio eventually (if reluctantly) joins forces to try and reverse “the Effect” in the hope of returning the world to normal. In the penultimate scene, Zac leaves Api and Joanne together when he completes the mission on his own by driving an explosives-laden truck into the New Zealand headquarters of Project Flashlight. When Zac later awakens, he finds himself alone on a beach looking over a new planetary alignment, suggesting he has been transferred to some parallel universe; Api and Joanne’s fate is unknown.
Speculating on how allegory works in The Quiet Earth and several other films that have a nuclear apocalypse as the narrative’s driving event, Despina Kakoudaki claims that both “actual and potential disasters are used to make overt political statements about government action and responsibility” (14). In The Quiet Earth, there are three clear political allegorical strands. First, the fictional disaster of “the Effect” evokes the potential of a “real-life” catastrophe, specifically the danger constituted in the French government’s decision to continue nuclear experiments on atolls relatively close to the shores of various populated islands in the South Pacific.4 Second, the relationship between the Maori and Pākehā characters is an allegory of the postcolonial tension born out of the British Empire’s colonization of New Zealand. Third, the film’s first act, where Zac is literally a man alone, calls to mind the severing of the relationship between New Zealand and both the old (British) and the new (United States) global imperial powers.
Considering Kakoudaki’s interpretation of the function of allegory, The Quiet Earth is a multi-layered, relational filmic allegory that addresses these three political contexts at the same time as foregrounding the “unfinished business” of reconciliation between Maori and Pākehā. This reading reflects Bruce Babington’s observation that the film’s opening, a telephoto shot of the Pacific Ocean sunrise over the sea, has “double connotations: on the one hand, a sinister resemblance to images of nuclear explosions, on the other, intimations of new dawns, new beginnings” (161). The ambiguity in this opening shot is echoed in the film’s final sequence, where the fate of the characters (and indeed the world as a whole) is never fully explained. While a number of critics, whom I will reference later this essay, have inferred from the film’s final sequence that the explosion Zac initiates in order to undo “the Effect” ends up destroying the earth, one could come to a different interpretation. Rather than focusing on Zac’s arrival on a new planet, the final scene leaves open the possibility that “the Effect” was reversed, enabling a new future for the two survivors, Api and Joanne.
In order to read The Quiet Earth as an allegory of a particular moment in New Zealand, it is necessary to consider the contexts of both New Zealand’s history and its cinematic tradition. While The Quiet Earth was released the same year as the heightening of tension between New Zealand and the world’s nuclear powers, the tension between Maori and Pākehā that the film addresses draws from an event nearly 150 years earlier: the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and Maori tribal leaders. The last major land mass in the world to be settled by humans, it is widely believed that Polynesians first landed in Aotearoa (the Maori word for New Zealand meaning “the land of the long white cloud”) in the 13th century AD. The European “discovery” of New Zealand came in December 1642 through Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman—an unknown cartographer for the Dutch East India Company who penned the name “Nieuw Zeeland”—and James Cook, whose journeys beginning in 1769 mark the origin of the relationship between Maori and Britain. The first decades of the 19th century in New Zealand were a time of increasing exchange between Maori and (largely British) Europeans through sailors and convicts who escaped during the voyage to Australia; Maori visitation to Australia and the United Kingdom; the sealing, whaling, and timber industries; and the subsequent arrival of Christian evangelists from various denominations.5
Due to a combination of humanitarian, commercial, and governmental concerns, Britain’s escalating involvement in New Zealand led to plans for a formal document recognizing the relationship between New Zealand and the British Crown. James Busby, a viticulturist from New South Wales, began his tenure as the first British Resident in 1833. He was “in effect, the representative of British law and order and diplomatic interests in the country” (King 152). Essentially, the appointment of Busby would lead to the annexation of New Zealand; Busby’s persistent (if ineffective) attempts at making the separate and disparate Maori tribes from around the country recognize a unified nationhood, along with increasing interest from Britain’s Colonial Office, helped set the stage for the 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi by Pākehā representatives of the Crown and notable Maori. This document would turn out to “be the most contentious and problematic ingredient in New Zealand’s national life” (King 157).
Although the Treaty of Waitangi serves as the founding document for post-European-contact New Zealand, the problems involved in its construction, translation, and legality have been a source of constant debate over the course of its 170 year history. Part of the problem of the treaty arises from the differences in the Maori and English language versions of the treaty. In the English version, Maori were given the “rights and privileges” of British subjects, including the right to retain or sell their land and property. However, Maori were expected to cede “absolutely and without reservation all the rights of Sovereignty” and no mention was made of the authority of Maori chiefs.6 As James Belich notes, “the notion that 500 Maori chiefs woke up one morning brimful of loyalty to Queen Victoria and blithely gave away their authority is, and should always have been, ludicrous” (194). One of the reasons for the problem is that the Maori language version of the treaty employed two key terms to define the relationship between Maori and the Crown: the term kawanatanga (governorship) describing the imminent role of the British in New Zealand, while rangatiratanga (chieftanship) was guaranteed for Maori. Although the use of the term rangatiratanga may have been an “honest attempt” to convey the notion of ownership to Maori, it is “more probable that it was a deliberate or semi-deliberate act of deceit by those who translated the treaty into Maori” (Belich 194).
For New Zealand audiences watching The Quiet Earth any time since its release, the Treaty of Waitangi—and the long-standing problems with which it is associated— is called to mind in the film’s initial meeting between Maori and Pākehā. The first question Api asks Zac is whether he has “seen anyone else,” and Zac responds in the negative; shortly after, when Api realizes that Zac has tried to mislead him, Api angrily states, “you tell lies!” For a New Zealand audience (or indeed any audience familiar with New Zealand history), hearing Api accuse a member of the Pākehā establishment of deceitful behavior cannot help but evoke ongoing media reports from the Waitangi Tribunal, a permanent commission of inquiry that began in 1975, where Maori could confront the Crown about the breaching of guarantees made in the treaty.7 Despite the assurances about land and property rights designated to Maori in the treaty’s Maori language version, many Pākehā settlers, both those who arrived before the signing of the treaty and those who came later, were to benefit from Maori loss of land during and after the New Zealand Wars (1845-1872) that followed the signing of the treaty. The wars were fought largely over the Pākehā acquisition of land both before and after 1840, pitting British imperial troops and Maori fighting for and against Britain, and culminating in the confiscation of four million acres of Maori land.
The intentional or accidental mistranslation of the terms te kawanatanga katoa (complete government) and te tino rangitiratanga (the unimpeded operation of chieftanship) were not the only contradictory elements of the construction and implementation of the Treaty of Waitangi. Nonetheless, it is apparent that the incompatibility of these ideas—the British Crown attaining complete sovereign power and the rule of Maori chiefs continuing—underlies the critique of the treaty by those from all parts of contemporary New Zealand’s political spectrum, whether Maori activists or conservative Pākehā politicians. New Zealand politics continues to be dominated by dialogue concerning the treaty and what it means to New Zealanders today. This is due in no small part to the country’s move away from the influence of Britain and towards forging its postcolonial national identity. Even though colonial New Zealand has been called a “booming, burgeoning neo-Britain” (Belich 450), the country saw its economic and political relations with the United Kingdom lessen significantly by the second half of the twentieth century. This shift was made apparent in the social change that occurred from the 1940s, when most New Zealanders “still spoke of Britain as ‘Home’” and they “certainly saw nothing odd in having the country’s head of state live 20,000 km” away in England, to the 1960s, when New Zealand, to a large extent because of a wide-ranging weakening of economic and cultural ties, “was no longer in close collaboration with what had been the Mother Country” (King 413, 451).8
New Zealand’s diminishing relationship with Britain was not the only noticeable change occurring in the country in the middle of the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1960s, the social effects of what is now known as the Maori Renaissance became increasingly evident. The cultural revival emphasized the teaching of te reo Māori (the Maori language), kapa haka (dance and singing), and, most importantly, a growth in political agency amongst the Maori tribes in New Zealand to seek recourse for the land confiscations of the previous century. By the 1980s, Maori had continued to foreground issues arising from both the Treaty of Waitangi and the subsequent encroachment by Europeans into Maori life. In 1984, the year before the release of The Quiet Earth, the largest and most significant gathering of Maori leaders since the 1890s took place. According to historian Paul Moon, this meeting came about due to a number of factors: the increasing politicization of Maori across New Zealand; the subsequent increase in Maori activists and activist groups; the 1975 creation of the Waitangi Tribunal, a venue for Maori to air grievances and obtain recognition and compensation from the Crown; a growing Maori population (around 16% of NZ’s total population by 2000); and “the emergence of a strong and articulate Maori intelligentsia” (23). Also, the 1984 election of Prime Minister David Lange and the Labour party (a political organization that has traditionally been more receptive to Maori issues than the more conservative National party) set the stage for the meeting, named the Hui Taumata.9
In considering The Quiet Earth as a multi-layered allegory that explores the relationship between Maori and Pākehā, the history of New Zealand (and in particular this “snapshot” of Maori life leading up to the film’s production and release) constitutes a necessary context for reading the film. However, it is not until the film’s second and third acts that the interaction of Maori and Pākehā plays out on screen. Thus before discussing the relationship between Api and Zac, it is necessary to consider allegory in the film’s first act, where the film’s Pākehā scientist Zac is literally a man alone in a post-human New Zealand.
In a short essay included in the cover notes for the film’s U.S. DVD release, Richard Harland Smith argues that last man films like The Quiet Earth “are the flip side of the disaster flick, a sci-fi sidebar that mulls over the fate of the human race via cautionary tales of destruction from space (When Worlds Collide, Armageddon) or nuclear folly (Testament, The Day After)” (1). Last man films were produced in early Hollywood cinema—including the silent comedy The Last Man on Earth (John Blystone, 1924), where the last man and his girlfriend live in the Ozarks, and Deluge (Feliz E. Feist, 1933), where earthquakes destroy the Pacific coast— and in recent big-budget films, such as I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007), where the protagonist fights “dark-seeking” creatures in New York City, and The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009), the post-apocalyptic, father-son tale adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel.
The premise of last man films play upon the seductive fantasy of an individual having the earth, or at least part of it, to himself. In this newly empty space the last man is free: to roam the streets, enter once forbidden spaces, have access to material goods (gourmet food, designer clothes, luxury cars), and reside in glorious dwellings (at least when it is an urban location). These films, whether the catalyst for the empty world is an invasion from outer space or the aftermath of a seeming nuclear apocalypse, play upon similar concerns: Does the protagonist hatch plans to save an absent humanity? Does he find peace and happiness in solitude? Does he succumb to madness due to his isolation? Does he resolve himself to a life completely alone? In the case of the first act of The Quiet Earth, Zac does all of the above, only to find other human beings when he has given up all hope.
Yet perhaps the most intriguing element of the employment of the generic conventions of this sci-fi sub-genre is how it relates to one of the film’s allegorical strands: the relationship between Maori and Pākehā. New Zealand feature filmmakers have explored this relationship throughout the history of NZ film, but not through the realm science fiction. For example, one of NZ’s pioneering directors, Rudall C. Hayward, made two realist dramas where NZ history and interpersonal relationship between Maori and Pākehā take center stage. Rewi’s Last Stand: The Last Stand, An Episode of the New Zealand Wars (1925) tells the story of a Maori and Pākehā who fall in love in the midst of the land wars in the 1860s. Robert (Leo Pilcher) and Ariana (Ramai Te Miha) are on opposite sides of a battle between Ariana’s Maniapoto tribe and the British Imperial troops. The film’s climax is the siege of a Maori stronghold, where Ariana fights alongside the tribe’s men. Haywood made another film, The Te Kooti Trail (1927), adapted from journalist and historian James Cowan’s The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period (1922-1923). The film focuses on the Maori religious and military leader, Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, a formidable anti-colonial figure during the New Zealand Wars, and the 1867 sacking of Mill Farm.
Another key figure in early NZ film, John O’Shea, made Broken Barrier (1952), a fictional story about a journalist, Tom, who is employed by a Maori family to work on their farm on the North Island’s East Coast. Tom falls in love with the farmer’s daughter, Rawi, but cultural differences between their friends and family leads to a break-up before they inevitably reunite. While Rewi’s Last Stand, The Te Kooti Trail, and Broken Barrier are just three examples of films dealing with local issues and history during the earlier period of NZ cinema, the creation of the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) in 1978 not only increased the amount of films produced in the country, but also provided guidelines about the film’s subject matter. NZFC funding would be provided “to encourage and participate and assist in the making, promotion, distribution of films with a significant New Zealand content,” with the NZFC granted the discretion as to what constitutes “New Zealand content” (Churchman 61). The NZFC, which was financed by funds from taxpayers, lottery grants, and revenue from the films, had a monumental effect on filmmaking in New Zealand.10 Geoffrey Churchman explains:
As had happened in Australia, the NZFC quickly became a vital ingredient of the film industry . . . During its first ten years, more than 50 feature films were made in New Zealand. Over 75 percent of these received production finance, development funding, bridging loans or marketing assistance from the Commission . . . Due to the NZFC, New Zealand films were sold to more than 50 countries. (62)
Notably, one of the first major film projects to receive funding from the NZFC was Geoff Murphy’s Goodbye Pork Pie (1980). Like The Quiet Earth, Goodbye Pork Pie is a genre film (a “road movie”) that enjoyed critical and commercial success both in New Zealand and in overseas markets (it was released in eight countries). An unemployed teenager steals a wallet and uses the cash and drivers license within to rent a yellow Mini that he drives from a town in New Zealand’s far north to Invercargill, a city at the southern tip of NZ’s South Island. (Bruno Lawrence, continuing a long-standing creative relationship with Murphy, appears in the film playing a low-level criminal.) The success of this production allowed Murphy to make Utu (1982), another film that mines the history of the New Zealand land wars. Set in 1870, the film’s catalytic event is the massacre of Maori by British imperial troops. A Maori scout, Te Wheke, who is employed by the British, discovers the dead, only to find that his own people are among those killed. Seeking revenge (the Maori word utu means to restore balance and can be interpreted and enacted in the form of revenge), Te Wheke takes up arms against the British forces and colonial settlers. Bruno Lawrence plays another key role in a Murphy film, this time playing a Pākehā farmer whose wife is killed in attacks by Maori. As with Rudall C. Hayward’s films depicting the New Zealand wars and military battles between Maori and Pākehā, Utu is a realist drama; moreover, reminiscent of Goodbye Pork Pie, Utu has become one of the most popular and critically acclaimed films in the history of New Zealand cinema.
Coming after these two successful films, The Quiet Earth brings together elements from both those previous projects: a genre film that explores racial conflict. Moreover, the synthesis of the “last man” sci-fi trope and a specifically New Zealand creative theme—the man alone—is one of the film’s most intriguing facets. The film’s first act, where Zac passes through parts of New Zealand unaccompanied by any human, draws on an iconic NZ novel, John Mulgan’s Man Alone (1939). Described by New Zealand film critic Laurence Simmons as a “seminal work of Kiwi national identity” (60), Mulgan’s novel features a protagonist, Johnson, a young veteran of the First World War who moves to New Zealand after becoming disenchanted with his life in England, only to become unemployed in the midst of the country’s depression and unable to connect to the locals. Often misinterpreted as a celebration of the pioneering spirit of New Zealanders—due mainly to the title being more well-known in NZ than the book’s content—Man Alone is “the story of a man who lives in the aftermath of war in a country dislocated by capitalism’s failure” (O’Sullivan 192). Andrew Spicer argues that “the ‘man alone’ archetype can be seen as part of an Anglo-Celtic diaspora, a ‘white pioneer’ myth that celebrates a rugged freedom-loving masculinity be it in North America, Australia, or New Zealand” (186). In New Zealand, Spicer writes, the roots of Pākehā masculinity are predicated on “a belief in freedom that incarnates the wild, untamed expansiveness of the landscape itself” (186).
As in the first act of The Quiet Earth, the “man alone” strain that runs through certain New Zealand films—Roger Donaldson’s Smash Palace (1982), Murphy’s Goodbye Pork Pie, The Lost Tribe (John Laing, 1983/1985), and Arriving Tuesday (Richard Riddiford, 1986) are other quintessential 1980s NZ “man alone” films—allows the filmmaker “to exploit the country’s scenic beauty and to exalt the ruggedness of men who can survive and prosper in such a place, largely by use of their wit but also sometimes through sheer wit and determination” (Margolis 16). That the “man alone” is also often deeply troubled is part of this projection of New Zealand masculine identity. Sam Neill, New Zealand’s most internationally well-known actor, based part of the thesis of his 1995 documentary, Cinema of Unease: A Personal Journey, on the darker elements of the “man alone” archetype: “If a national cinema is a reflection of ourselves,” Neill states, “then ours is a troubled reflection indeed.” It is important to note, however, that New Zealand film critics have rebutted Neill’s extrapolation.
What Neill calls the legacy of a “menacing land” as revealed through a select number of films is, The New Zealand Herald film critic Peter Calder contends, a “facile notion which makes as much sense as concluding that everyone in America lives like the Brady Bunch . . .” (qtd. in Horrocks 130). Despite the controversy in New Zealand surrounding Neill’s documentary, it was well received in Britain, where it was included in the British Film Institute’s “Century of Cinema” series, and in the United States. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin praises the documentary, stating that it shows how NZ’s “wide-open landscape also fostered a violent individualism that is the mainspring of its national cinema.” Thus, the “man alone” trope reached an international audience, regardless of negative reviews in New Zealand.
Writing about The Quiet Earth as a continuation of this “man alone” mythology, Martin Blythe argues that the first act of the film is the “literal and logically absurd conclusion” that highlights Zac’s “sense of guilt, once repressed and now out in the open, but to what purpose?” (199). In the first part of the narrative, Zac—after spending several weeks fruitlessly looking for any signs of life—expresses this “sense of guilt” in an unexpected way. Declaring that he’s “taking over,” Zac arranges a public address to his imaginary New World subjects from the balcony of his colonial-era residence. In addition to rigging up a large public address system complete with rock band-sized amplifiers, all around the garden Zac places life-sized cardboard cut-outs of political and religious leaders from the twentieth century—Hitler, Winston Churchill, Gandhi, Richard Nixon, Mussolini, Pope John Paul II, Queen Elizabeth II—and an assorted cast of images: a Scotsman doing the Highland fling, Bob Marley, Elvis Presley, and a stuffed representation of a Moa, the giant native bird believed to have been hunted into extinction by the Maori prior to the European colonization of New Zealand.
Facing this crowded line-up of history represented by flimsy cardboard images of notable individuals, Zac, with a shawl slung over his shoulder like a toga and his jaw jutting out in a cartoonish mimicry of a Roman Emperor, launches into an emotional plea to his inanimate audience, where he admits to knowing his scientific work was being used for “evil” ends. He attempts to evade full complicity by stating the destruction of humanity was due to “the awesome forces” he helped create having “been put in the hands of madmen”; however, the following line of his speech sounds more like a personal confession: “I’ve been gagged by the taint of my own corruption.” Zac claims it is this awareness that entitles him to be “president of this quiet earth,” and he concludes with the assertion that he has “been condemned to live.” A subsequent close-up of Zac reveals tears in his eyes, showing that his attempt to avoid complicity and alleviate his own sense of guilt is futile despite the pageantry of his oration.
Although Blythe is no doubt right to point out that the movement of Zac’s guilt from internal rumination to visceral action may at first appear to be without a clear purpose, this transformation is part of his role as an allegorical figure in the film as a whole. Certainly, the question of how both personal and collective history is carried on by the few remaining humans is central to the film’s narrative, but it is also a question posed in a specific historical and social context: New Zealand in the 1980s. Zac’s relationship to the ecological catastrophe that has left New Zealand “totally isolated rather than just distant from the rest of the globe, but not from its own history, which the survivors carry with them” (Babington 161), cannot be extracted from his identity as a Pākehā in post-British New Zealand. The history that Zac carries is not that of all New Zealanders, but of the descendants of Europeans who began settling in New Zealand in the previous century. (Conversely, Api carries the history of Maori, a position that is made apparent in a couple of scenes I will discuss later in this essay.) That Zac moves into a Victorian colonial mansion, the very type of residence occupied by the various emissaries of the British Crown since the beginning of British colonialism in New Zealand, cannot be read merely as Zac taking advantage of the luxuries afforded to the earth’s last man: he turns to NZ’s colonial past for both literal and figurative comfort and shelter. This conservative action—to look for hope in the “good old days”—speaks to the colonial elite’s glorification of the imperial center: the “good old days” were when England provided guidance, governance, and cultural values in very real, material terms.
Similar to John O’Shea’s Runaway (1964), another “man alone” film whose isolated Pākehā protagonist traverses NZ in order to escape the responsibilities of family and work, the diminished bond between England and New Zealand is called to mind through the figure of Zac as alienated Pākehā, unable to find peace of mind in NZ and uneasy with his place in society. In The Quiet Earth, however, the Pākehā’s anxiety is taken to an extreme when Zac attempts to communicate with cardboard cutouts of international figures and in another sequence when a crazed Zac blasts away at a church with a shotgun and vows to “shoot the kid” (an image of the crucified Jesus) if God does not reveal himself (he does not). The problem of Pākehā identity in a country where the bond with Britain has weakened and there is a resurgent Maori culture is an integral subtext to the film’s first act. In making a colonial mansion his home, Zac attempts to reify the position of historical privilege for the European in New Zealand. It is not insignificant that two of the poster cutouts that the now insane Zac addresses from the balcony of his colonial-era abode are Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill, those most British icons. But as Zac’s sanity wanes, his identity starts to further splinter and disintegrate. Beneath the toga Zac is wearing a woman’s slip, a garment that he sports in another short sequence when he wanders into New Zealand’s largest rugby stadium, the aptly titled Eden Park. Echoing the lack of divine intervention at the church, this Eden is no paradise: Zac is met by mist, a gloomy sky, and empty spectator stands.
While the film’s first act is memorable because of Bruno Lawrence’s nuanced performance of Zac’s descent into madness, it is not until other survivors confront Zac as “man alone” that the film can evoke another allegorical thread. In this way, The Quiet Earth follows in the tradition of Rudall Hayward’s films, with that “particular concentration on associations between Pākehā and Maori, and a stress upon the nature of the individual subject” (Murray and Conrich 3). The film balances the themes of “man alone” and Maori/ Pākehā relations through the structure of the three acts—Zac is alone in the first, with Alison and then Api in the second and third, and is eventually alone again by the end of the third—all the while evoking the other allegorical strands of New Zealand’s relationship to the rest of the world. Speaking to the relationship between allegory and representation of history, Phillip Wegner argues that allegories “enable complex or abstract historical processes to take on a concrete form” and that “allegorical representations also have the capacity to condense different historical levels and conflicts into a single figure, enabling a kind of relational thinking that is not as readily available in other forms of expression” (7). If the first act of The Quiet Earth allegorizes New Zealand’s relationship with Britain from the colonial era through to the cultural and economic distancing that began in the later half of the twentieth century, it also directly addresses NZ’s relationship with the U.S., Britain’s successor as the new, ultimate force of cultural imperialism.
The film’s critique of Anglo-American power is made apparent from the start of the film, for when on returning to the headquarters of the secret, American-led energy project where he worked, Zac finds out that all links with the Northern Hemisphere have been destroyed. As Jonathan Rayner asserts, the “schism between Northern and Southern Hemisphere stimulates a political and cultural reappraisal” (160). Put simply, the film’s allegorical strands are interconnected, enabling the plot and characters to “embody the institutionalized conflicts contained within New Zealand during the 1980s” (Rayner 160). More specifically, the connection between NZ, England, and the U.S. brought to mind in the film’s “man alone” section reflects contemporary New Zealand. As Roger Horrocks argues: “much of New Zealand culture can be analysed as a triangular relationship between the American, the British, and the local” (132). The Quiet Earth is a prime example of the confluence of these cultures: a last man film (a largely American sci-fi sub-genre) set in a member country of the British Commonwealth dealing with the fallout from a controversial anti-nuclear stance and European colonialism. The destruction of the United States and Europe also has a clear metaphorical function: not only will the new and old masters of the world not interact with New Zealand, but they literally cannot. It is up to New Zealand (represented in this film through these few survivors) to make its own way in the world.
The film’s opening “man alone” act comes to an end when Zac meets Joanne. The allegorical function of the two coming together suggests that there is a future for humankind, as opposed to the foreclosure of the future presented in Zac’s descent into madness as the world’s last man. Joanne’s assessment of Zac and his fellow scientists as those who belong to “an exclusive all-male club that plays God with the universe” lends itself to an eco-critical reading of “the Effect” as an allegorical indictment of the world’s nuclear powers, as well as positioning Joanne as representative of 1980s feminism. Yet together the two characters attempt to make sense of what has happened and to continue Zac’s quest—interrupted by his bout of madness—to find other survivors. After a night together in a motel, Joanne and Zac’s relationship becomes physically intimate, a fact that further heightens the tension when the “Other” last man, Api, joins the duo.
Joanne’s entry into the realm of the “last man” also marks the plot point where The Quiet Earth’s main filmic influence, Ranald MacDougall’s The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), is made particularly evident. As in the 1985 homage, MacDougall’s film begins with a thirty-something man finding himself alone in a post-nuclear apocalypse world. In The World, the Flesh, and the Devil the last man is an African American, Ralph (Harry Belafonte). After his own journey through human-less rural and urban landscapes, Ralph takes up residence in New York City and comes across a young female survivor, Sarah (Inger Stevens). Ralph and Sarah bond immediately, but he is wary of her increasing affection towards him: an outcome of living in a segregated United States. The two are joined by another survivor, a white man named Benson (Mel Ferrer). Benson falls in love with Sarah, and after realizing that her affection for Ralph will impede the development of any romantic relationship, Benson tells Ralph that he will kill him the next time he sees him. After stalking one another through the streets of New York, Ralph and Benson put their differences aside, uniting with Sarah to start anew in an empty world.
While the sexual and racial dynamics echo those in The Quiet Earth, the inversion of roles makes a comparison between the films that is worth noting. In the American film, it is the racial Other who is the film’s central protagonist, a figure who spurns the advances of the last woman. In addition, whereas Sarah is in love with Ralph, Joanne’s sexual attention shifts from Zac to Api by the film’s conclusion. Moreover, Api tells Joanne that he aims to be the last man on earth, while in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil it is the white man who vows to kill his rival. However, in both films the female figures ultimately function as mediators and points of reconciliation between the male characters. In Atomic Bomb Cinema: The Apocalyptic Imagination on Film (2001), Jerome F. Shapiro sees the connection between the two films, while arguing that “the solutions The World, the Flesh, and the Devil proposes are revolutionary to both ancient apocalyptic narrative, and to contemporary Western culture: matriarchal exogamic polygamy” (79).
If The Quiet Earth is a remake of the American film, which is what Shapiro contends, then the role of the feminine figure is one place where the films diverge. Just prior to Zac’s suicide mission attempt to reverse “the Effect,” Joanne and Api have sex in a tower overlooking the Project Flashlight headquarters. Although Joanne may have served as a conduit to stop the men’s rivalry from escalating—in an earlier scene she fires a gun above the men’s heads to make them stop quarrelling—her affection for Api does not lead to a ménage a tois. When she decides to ride with Api rather than Zac on the way to the Project Spotlight headquarters in the scene prior to the film’s climax—then sleeps with Api during Zac’s brief return to Auckland—the possibility of what Shapiro calls the solution of “matriarchal exogamic polygamy” seems unlikely for this world’s last trio. Zac’s subsequent decision to embark on a suicide mission to ensure that the headquarters are blown up is connected to his exclusion; a new beginning is not about him, but rather Joanne and Api. Joanne is not the matriarchal center of humanity’s future; rather, her sexual interactions relate to the film’s larger allegorical structure that emphasizes the divide between Api and Zac. As Martin Blythe comments: “She sleeps with each man once, and in a sense she could stand in for the body of New Zealand, torn between the two essentialisms, Pakeha and Maori” (201). Yet as anyone who is familiar with contemporary New Zealand must admit, the country is divided into “two essentialisms”; the discourses of race and postcolonial nationhood are complex and fluid. One example of this is in the political sphere, where there are two Maori political parties—the Maori nationalist Mana party and the larger Maori party—but also a Maori leader, Winston Peters, of a conservative party, New Zealand First, whose policy platform includes the reduction of Treaty of Waitangi restitution. To state that there is any distinct binary between “all” Maori and Pākehā is to ignore the myriad positions and opinions New Zealanders hold in regards to both the country’s past and its future.
Notably, critics have been more concerned with what the film’s final scene suggests—Zac finding himself alone (again), on a beach, looking out at a realigned solar system—than with Joanne’s decision to consummate her relationship with Api. As in the film’s opening, the final shot is emblematic of what Helen Martin calls The Quiet Earth’s “excellent cinematography with judicious use of light [and] colour effects” (qtd. in Petrie and Stuart 113). But discussing Zac’s fate also raises the question of what may have happened to Api and Joanne. Reading the scene in the context of the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States) security treaty crisis, which was precipitated by NZ’s burgeoning nuclear-free identity, Jonathan Rayner asserts that the “destruction of the last link with the [Northern Hemisphere] removes Zac to an entirely new universe, in which prevailing political conditions no longer apply” (160). But, Rayner argues, this is not the only conclusion one can infer from the scene: it “manifests the perfect (if fantastic) solution to the problem of external authority: the desire for a genuinely uncontested space that underpins colonial experience” (160). Both aspects of Rayner’s interpretation of the scene hinges on the notion that Zac remains essentially unchanged through the course of the narrative: starting as a guilt-ridden man alone, then becoming as a stubborn scientist who clashes with both Joanne and Api, and then becoming a figure willing to sacrifice himself for the chance of a future.
Rayner’s less than optimistic appraisal of Zac’s post-explosion destination is shared by Martin Blythe. With Zac triggering the explosion at the end of the film, Blythe claims that the subsequent recurrence of “the Effect” happens:
with a perfect ironic symmetry: Zac, the only original suicide in the group, again destroys himself and yet again crosses the warp Effect from death into life; Joanne and Api make love (Creation) and yet cross in the reverse direction into death . . . The guilt of history is atoned for (in as much as it can be) but at the price of destroying everything worthwhile in New Zealand. (202)
Just as Rayner’s reading of this scene is predicated on Zac’s continuation as an embodiment of colonialism, Blythe interprets Zac’s survival as evidence of the annihilation of Api, Joanne, and the earth as a whole. Admitting that it is a “beautiful and cryptic final shot which reminds critics of the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey” (202), Blythe nonetheless forecloses the possibility of Zac’s redemption, linking the protagonist’s actions at the film’s climax to the suicide attempt from which he awakens in the film’s opening sequence.
However, keeping in mind the context of a country embroiled in foreign relation tension due to its increasingly firm anti-nuclear stance, as well as the foregrounding of Maori cultural and political issues at the time of the film’s release, the final scene can determine how one interprets the film in its entirety. Does Zac reify his position as scientist/white boss by destroying New Zealand and starting again alone? Or is this “suicide bomber” giving his life so that the world has a future with two others who are untainted by complicity in a disastrous scientific project? Bruce Babington contends that the ending “raises but does not answer” important questions; yet he suggests that Zac’s “explosion has caused, rather than prevented, a new effect (that) displaces him to a parallel world” (165). Blythe describes Zac as “Adam Alone in Aotearoa” (198), but perhaps he is Noah in New Zealand/Aotearoa, providing passage for Joanne and Api to build a new New Zealand. Moreover, further evidence for Zac as less an unhinged “man alone” and static embodiment of Pākehā conservatism and more an agent of change can be found in the film’s source material. In adapting Harrison’s novel into screenplay, a process in which actor Bruno Lawrence took part, psychotic Zac’s (Jack in the novel) murder of Api, who himself had committed atrocities as a NZ soldier in Vietnam, was removed.
In the film version, apart from an angry outburst after Joanne’s feelings for Api become apparent, Zac’s “resentment [of Api and Joanne’s affection for him] turns to philosophical acceptance, taking on shades of the semi-mystical feeling the other two are inclined to” (Babington 165). Zac reveals to Joanne that she and Api are somehow his special “guardians,” and, in an admission that belies the rational thought of a scientist, he tells her that he believes she and Api knew each other in a past life. What is more, during a scene leading up to the film’s climax, Zac inspects his computer to discover that another seismic event is likely to occur in the next day or so. Moments later, there is a series of violent tremors, giving the trio a taste of “the Effect” in action. They are thrown into separate realities in different parts of the house, with the laws of gravity absent and bizarre lighting illuminating the characters’ faces. What makes this scene particularly significant is that Zac, suspended in his isolated reality, calls out only to Api, his allegorical counterpart, rather than to Joanne, with whom he is in love. As Zac continuously intones Api’s name, there is a close-up of Zac, with a flickering, ghostly long shot of Api standing in the dark transposed across Zac’s face, bringing them into (visual) synthesis.
Another way to try to understand The Quiet Earth’s ambiguous ending may come by way of looking more closely at Api. As a number of critics of the film point out, the binary distinction between Api and Zac is stark: Zac is the rational, conservative, suit-wearing scientist; Api, who is posited as the radical Maori, appears on screen for the first time brandishing an uzi and with his face covered by a balaclava. Despite this first impression of Api as a menacing figure, he becomes a multi-dimensional character. When the trio stops at a marae—a communal, sacred space for iwi (tribes), hapū (sub-tribes), and whānau (family)—Joanne goes outside to find Api performing a somber waiata tangi (a song of lamentation for the dead) at his mother’s gravesite. This demonstration of his spirituality connects to Api’s earlier explanation of a foundational part of Maori mythology: the belief that the spirits of the dead travel to the tip of New Zealand’s North Island before departing the earth.
More than a “token” Maori character or dramatic foil to Zac, Api’s statement to Zac about the extinction of the “white bosses” is as powerful as his indictment of Project Flashlight’s ecological irresponsibility: “You’re trying to tell me you jokers caused all this and you can’t even fix it,” he says to Zac. “You monkey with the universe, without even knowing what you are doing.” That Joanne “chooses” Api, whom she calls an “artist,” at the film’s ending does not come as a surprise, considering the way his confident synthesis of spirituality and masculinity makes him a more attractive option than the guilty Pākehā scientist, even with Zac’s new-found spiritual awareness.
Api’s position as a central character in The Quiet Earth also reflects a significant moment for Maori in the production of New Zealand cinema. Merata Mita’s Patu! (1983) is a documentary about the protests and violence in New Zealand surrounding the visiting apartheid-era South African national rugby team, but the film “also questioned the hypocritical stance of an outraged, white liberal New Zealand at the injustices of apartheid in South Africa, whilst effectively ignoring the racism and oppression in their own country” (Petrie and Stuart 30). A groundbreaking Maori filmmaker, Mita also directed Mauri (1988), a feature film that looks at a rural Maori community during the 1950s. Both Mita and Barry Barclay, whose film Ngati (1987) was the first film written and directed by a Maori, “explore Maori culture, social relations, and understandings of the world in their own distinctive ways, reaffirming the cultural and political importance of cinema in the process” (30). Moreover, Mita and Barclay were at the vanguard of the Maori filmmakers who gained greater prominence in the following decades, and include Lee Tamahori (1994’s Once Were Warriors and other Hollywood productions), Don Selwyn (director of a Maori language version of The Merchant of Venice titled Te Tangata Whai Rawa o Wēniti, 2002), Taika Waititi (nominated for an Academy Award for his 2003 short film, Two Cars, One Night), Reina Webster (The Little Things, 2004), Michael Bennet (Matariki, 2010), Tearepa Kahi (Taua—War Party, 2007), Katie Wolfe (Kawa, 2011), and a number of other successful young writers and directors, many of whom have portrayed contemporary Maori life in its diverse forms. One only needs to look at the immense local and international success of Niki Caro’s Whale Rider (2002), the story of a 12-year-old girl in conflict with her grandfather over whether she will become chief of the tribe, to see the interest in Maori culture and how its sophistication can be conveyed on screen.
The ending of The Quiet Earth demonstrates how it is very much a film of this moment in New Zealand, the midpoint of a decade that saw momentous social and political changes both in that corner of the South Pacific and around the globe. As Kimberley Moffit and Duncan A. Campbell assert, “without a doubt, the world in 1979 was very different [from] that of 1989” (2). Rather than being merely the “conservative foil” to the 1960s and 1970s, the Rainbow Coalition, anti-apartheid struggle, decay of the Soviet Union, Live Aid, and the New Zealand’s anti-nuclear protests “all pointed to an unquenched idealism on the part of millions to fight for a better world” (2). For New Zealand, the 1980s was a decade where New Zealand identity—for Maori, Pākehā, anti-nuclear activists—was called into question more starkly than at any other time in the country’s history. A striving to answer this can be seen in New Zealand’s range of homegrown film productions, of which The Quiet Earth is one of the most important.
Director Roger Donaldson, who, like Geoff Murphy, was at the forefront of this movement, states, “no longer an outpost of British colonialism, New Zealand has thrown off its direct contact and reliance on Europe and found its own identity as a multicultural country in the South Pacific” (qtd. in Petrie and Stuart 9). The Quiet Earth is a film that grounds itself—via allegory played out in a science fiction sub-genre—in the question of national identity for both Maori and Pākehā: what is New Zealand, and, more importantly, who are New Zealanders in this new, radically different world? Making an optimistic reading of the film’s final shot, one could hope that this is the place that Api and Joanne find themselves. Not a utopia, but a country where the lingering effects of British colonialism and the threat of nuclear powers are problems to be met and worked through without foreclosing into exclusive essentialisms of Maori and Pākehā. And Zac’s death or exile to another planet is not a punishment or reward, but the result of a necessary action: facing up to past actions in order to ensure a new future.
1. Having just returned from a mission to evacuate hundreds of Marshall Islanders from an atoll that had been affected by fallout from earlier nuclear testing by the United States, the Rainbow Warrior was docked at Auckland Harbour at the time of the bombing in preparation for a voyage to the Moruroa atoll in French Polynesia. Despite France’s terrorism, Greenpeace activists would continue to use Auckland as a base out of which to launch its operations. Moruroa, in particular, would be a site of confrontation between the French government and anti-nuclear activists.
2. This was a crucial step toward a complete anti-nuclear policy that was eventually implemented in 1987.
3. The United States has its own long history of nuclear testing in the North Pacific. For an in-depth look into this history, see Jane Dibbin’s Day of Two Suns: U.S. Nuclear Testing and the Pacific Islanders (1988).
4. Including New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tahiti, New Caledonia, and numerous other smaller Polynesian and Micronesian nations.
5. Michael King argues that in the fifty years following the establishment of a penal colony in New South Wales, Australia in 1788, “[e]verything that unfolded in New Zealand. . . brought New Zealand into a progressively closer relationship with Europeans and, in particular, Europeans from Britain” (151).
6. The Waitangi Tribunal has an excellent website that offers clear and nuanced explanation and analysis of the Treaty of Waitangi. See http://www.waitangi-tribunal.govt.nz/
7. Regardless, the treaty marked the beginning of an era of significant, formal European settlement, measurable in the establishment of what remain the four of the largest cities in New Zealand: Auckland (1840-41), Wellington (1840-42), Dunedin (1848), and Christchurch (1850). Along with New Plymouth and Nelson, these were known as the “‘main settlements,’ or even the ‘six colonies of New Zealand,’” serving as “bases of secondary colonization” where settlers could arrive by ship from Britain or Australia (Belich 188, 189).
8. Once the major supplier of produce to the UK, New Zealand’s farming industry lost its foothold as England moved towards the European Common Market.
9. While acknowledging that the early stages of the Maori renaissance had a positive effect on Maori, the conclusion of a communiqué issued by the Economic Summit paints a realistic if grim picture of Maori life in NZ: “ . . . the position of Maori is of major concern. The gap between Maori and Pakeha is widening. Racial tension has been growing and many Maori young people have been alienated from the wider community. Maori people and their resources continue to be under-utilised and under-developed” (qtd. in Moon).
10. As Duncan Stuart comments, the NZFC has filled a similar role to that of development agencies in other smaller countries, “such as the Irish Film Board, the Danish Film Institute and Scottish Screen, in the nurturing of their own national cinema” (17).
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