Composer Grigory Ligeti died last week. I'm not familiar with his entire oeuvre -- you may read more about this amazing man here -- but I do know and love one particular piece of his: Lux Aeterna, used to jaw-dropping effect in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
When we think of that film's best-selling soundtrack, it's usually the bombastic brass of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, or perhaps the lilting Blue Danube, which for many evokes the image of that majestic spinning space station. What I think about is astronaut Dave Bowman's final journey into the unknown, an encounter with an alien intelligence that is at once terrifying and awe-inspiring. And part of that mind-blowing passage is underscored by Lux Aeterna, a dense, unnerving landscape of human voices.
In science-fiction, there's something called sense of wonder, an aesthetic effect that transcends the limits of genre and gives the audience a mythic, primordial thrill. It's not just a "gosh-wow-yippee" reaction to special effects. It usually manifests itself as a humanistic reminder that no matter how tiny we may appear in the scope of all things, we can at least bear witness to, and appreciate, the wonders of the universe. 2001: A Space Odyssey hits these notes like no other film.
Classic SF novels featuring a definite sense of wonder include Alfred Bester's ground-breaking The Stars My Destination, whose thrilling, wonderfully moving climax quite literally leaps off the page. Then there are the short works of Harlan Ellison, particularly The Deathbird and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, stories in which humanity is at once tortured and uplifted by its endless capacity for empathy and mercy.
Cinema has certainly seen its share of wonder, too. For sheer spectacle, one need look no further than the awakening of Neo in The Matrix. The revelations of Alex Proyas' sci-fi noir Dark City evoke a chilling sense of wonder, especially as a detective (William Hurt), in his final moments of life, is afforded an unblinking glimpse into the reality of his false world
Sense of wonder isn't always fueled by visual spectacle. In the climactic battle of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, the demonic replicant Roy Baty (Rutger Hauer) ceases his killing spree to unexpectedly ponder the beauty of his short, oppressed life. In his final breath, he shows mercy to his quarry, an eloquent gesture in a film brimming with violence and rage.
And then there's The Quiet Earth. This little-known New Zealand sci-fi movie came to the U.S. in 1985, and it's a haunting, ultimately mind-blowing variation on a common genre theme: the last man on Earth.
We've seen this motif explored in various books and films before, from Richard Matheson's classic novel I Am Legend to its various film adaptations: The Last Man on Earth (with Vincent Price), The Omega Man (with Charlton Heston), and an upcoming Will Smith bastardization. More recently, Danny Boyle's virtuoso 28 Days Later played with similar themes to great effect.
Ably directed by Geoff Murphy, The Quiet Earth is about what happens when a top-secret government project goes awry. It's a power grid in the sky, electricity conducted through the very atmosphere itself, an outrageous but theoretically feasible concept devised by Tesla almost a century ago.
But when they flip the switch on this new planet-wide power system, every living creature on earth vanishes ... except one of the scientists. He's a haunted man (played by the late, great Bruno Lawrence) who awakens from a botched suicide attempt to find himself the last person on the planet. This premise is the polar opposite of that popular down-under franchise, Mad Max, where violence became the law of the land. Here the rule of law is utter silence, and when the first words are spoken 16 minutes into the film, it's startling.
You may be thinking: well, he's dead, that's gonna be the big Twilight Zone twist. I won't spoil this movie, but I'll tell you flat-out our lone hero does indeed wonder about his immortal soul for a while ... at least until he finds out he's not really alone.
When two other lost souls appear, The Quiet Earth veers briefly into conventional melodrama. While it presents some interesting social dynamics (one's a woman, the other a Maori, and three's a triangle), these developments are definitely less innovative than the film's desolate first act. The energy drags a bit as exposition unwinds, and it takes a while for the plot to recapture its urgency.
But then there's the climax, which is brave enough to make up for any flaws that have come before it. The climactic moments of The Quiet Earth are so unexpected and shocking they border on the incomprehensible. Here the movie dares to reach for the awesome alienation of Kubrick's final moments in 2001 ... that classic and mystifying conclusion that sought to show mankind's true scale against that of the stars.
The film's original movie poster even dared to put this climax in full view of unsuspecting patrons. Does this spoil it in any way? Not at all, because it's an ending that is fully open to interpretation. The new DVD case (a wonderfully sturdy steel box) replicates the poster artwork through a psychedelic filter, but you still get the idea.
I haven't seen this movie in a dozen years, and when I did, it was a dub of a dub from a friend's videotape, washed out and cropped but still glorious and grand enough to hold me spellbound. I'm thrilled to finally own The Quiet Earth in a crisp widescreen presentation, courtesy of the fine folks at Anchor Bay. The extras are minimal, but there is a nice commentary from producer and co-writer Sam Pillsbury, who gives a lot of insight into low-budget filmmaking. He also speaks at length on New Zealand's anti-nuclear political stance, which informed the film's theme. (And I should also give mention to John Charles' inspiring score, which sounds great in stereo).
If you're into thought-provoking sci-fi and wanna see something really ambitious, check out this lost gem, whose very existence speaks to the sense of wonder I'm talking about.