With his muscular body and his brooding, intelligent eyes, New Zealand actor Bruno Lawrence is an electrifying screen force. In "Smash Palace" that power was a mixture of sexual aggressiveness and almost primal paternal love. In "Heart of the Stag" he was the sensual outsider come to rescue a young woman from the thrall of incest. And now, in "The Quiet Earth," he is one of the world's network of thinker-scientists who have precipitated a nasty global accident. (It opens today at the new Samuel Goldwyn Pavilion Cinemas at the Westside Pavilion, 10800 Pico Blvd.)
Where would the screen be without the "unthinkable" world crisis? As empty as "The Quiet Earth" without the energy and the presence of Lawrence. From first image to last, he dominates this thoughtful last-man-on-Earth thriller, whose screenplay he co-wrote with Bill Baer and the film's co-producer, Sam Pillsbury.
A worldwide energy zap is a lot cleaner to contemplate than nuclear holocaust (and a lot cheaper to suggest on film). At 6:12 a.m. in an oceanside motel room he has taken for a specific purpose, scientist Zac Hobson (Lawrence) perceives an effect like the Great Flashbulb in the Sky. And suddenly, no people. Seat belts still belted around empty space. Toast still on breakfast plates. But no other living soul anywhere. And (with few, mild exceptions) no bodies.
Director Geoff Murphy, director of New Zealand's earlier rambunctious success "Good-bye, Pork Pie," creates enormous tension as Lawrence roams desperately through the town, the countryside and his own nearby top-secret lab in search of another survivor. He already suspects that Operation Flashlight, on which he's been working, has been pushed too far.
It's a scheme to create "a worldwide energy grid, from which warplanes can draw energy without having to refuel." Instead, a "local distortion in the fabric of space-time" means he has no one else chat with.
With the whole wide world, or at least the beautiful expanses of Auckland at his disposal, and all the power still on--an eerie touch--Lawrence goes vaguely but intelligently nutso. (Whether these last-man situations are fun or not always depends on the resourcefulness of our survivor, and Lawrence is splendidly inventive.) Champagne and eggs. The best haberdashery. Model, then real, trains to play with. Then, inconsolability. A brief, surreal fling at being emperor of the world before he struggles back to sanity, or the guilt-ridden sanity of someone who has mucked about disastrously with the universe's underpinnings.
The crucial questions in movies like this are: Why me, Lord? When does the rest of the cast show up?
The "why" is part of the mystery; the others will be just enough for the eternal triangle: a young, faintly dippy redhead (Alison Routledge) and a husky, feisty Maori (Peter Smith).
"The Quiet Earth" obviously is deeply felt. It's no accident that these tragic visions of depopulation come from a tiny country that has declared itself a nuclear-free zone. Or that one of the central characters is Maori, a tribe very nearly extinguished by the early white settlers, then earnestly "saved" and assimilated in this century, at the cost of their tribal culture.
It's these underpinnings of conscience and reflection that make the film special--these and director Murphy's acute visual sense and the tremendous center that Lawrence provides to everything. (Although the shallowness of Routledge's character wears thin fast, Lawrence's two fellow actors are fine; it's impossible to guess from Smith's command and strength that he had never acted before.)
There will, of course, be a heller of a special effect at the film's end. It's pleasant to report that it is done impressively, beautifully and modestly, exactly in keeping with the rest of the film. If I cannot tell you what its final, triumphant vision means, one that bursts with the same joyous awe as the closing images of "2010," I am cheered to say that neither can the press kit: "It is a question every viewer will have to answer for himself." Some of us are still wrestling with "Repo Man's" lattice of coincidence. 'THE QUIET EARTH' A Skouras Pictures release of a Cinepro/Pillsbury Films Production. Co-producers Don Reynolds, Sam Pillsbury. Director Geoff Murphy. Screenplay Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence, Pillsbury. Camera James Bartle. Editor Michael Horton. Art director Rick Kofoed. Music John Charles. Sound Mike Westgate, Hammond Peek. Special effects Ken Durey.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (persons younger than 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).