"The Last Wave," opening today at the Dupont Circle, is a fascinating example of overreaching cinematic supernaturalism. While it stays afloat the film imposes an almost voluptuous illusion of spookiness, sustaining a mood of apprehension with eerily beautiful, subtly unnerving imagery.
The first of the new Australian features to attain American distribution, "The Last Wave" should leave constant moviegoers curious to see more. It does a conceptual bellyflop but remains an impressive talent showcase for director Peter Weir and his superb cinematographer, Russell Boyd, who share a powerful expressive feeling for Australian vistas, contradictions and neuroses.
The countryside, the skyline and streets of Sydney and placid suburban neighborhoods look peculiarly vulnerable, threatened by portents of disaster in the form of freak storms or water imagery. The settings often give the impression of being etched on film moments before they're inundated or swept off the face of the earth. Weir and Boyd contrive to make a pictorial fetish of the uneasiness just about everyone feels during a torrential downpour or the stifling moments before a storm breaks.
The movie begins with the depiction of an ice storm suddenly descending from a cloudless sky on a dusty country schoolyard. In the city weird oily blotches pelt motorists and pedestrians before the start of a driving rainstorm. According to news broadcasts heard from car radios, these freak disturbances are certainly strange weather for November, but meteorologists are busy trying to account for them.
The atmosphere seems so spectacularly and enjoyably foreboding that you get a delightful shiver at each witty visual aside. For example, there's something unnaturally upsetting in this context about the sight of someone under a transparent umbrella leaning down to sip from a public drinking fountain. You're similarly transfixed at the reflection of the sun off the glass facade of a skyscraper, car headlights swimming into view on a rainy night, a bathtub overflowing, a lawn sprinkler emitting spirals of water.
Weir promises to become a virtuoso at disturbing or terrifying illustrative details. What "The Last Wave" conspicuously lacks is a mystery plot or apocalyptic parable clever enough to rationalize its menacing atmosphere and concluding vision of catastrophe.
Both the leading man and protagonist seem ill-chosen to embody the end-of-the-world revelation Weir has up his sleeve. Casting Richard Chamberlain as our surrogate on the brink of eternity, a successful Sydney attorney and contented family man who becomes privy to the secrets of the universe, produces a curious emotional detachment. You can't tell if this was Weir's way of flattering white civilization or underlining its impotence, but the second possibility is easier to play along with.
One stubbornly resists the characterization that Weir's story ultimately depends on: that the lawyer is a genuine mystic, a visionary in bourgeois surroundings who gradually realizes that his premonitions are divinely inspired, not that they seem to do him or anyone else much good. Chamberlain would make more sense as the sort of vaguely dissatisfied, depleted middle-class man who craved spirituality and found it in treacherous surroundings, like the educated, successful but discontented types who fell under the dominance of Jim Jones. The idea that Chamberlain might really have soul never takes hold.
In fact, when Chamberlain's character is drawn into a manslaughter case involving a group of aboriginals who apparently have been present at the mysterious death of an aboriginal who violated a hidden tribal temple in the city, it appears that the story may evolve into a psychological thriller about a civilized man attracted to voodoo. Unfortunately, this possibility ends up sharing an overflowing bin of red herrings.
There's never much reason for Chamberlain, supposedly a corporate attorney, to get involved in the legal defense of these grave, secretive aboriginals to begin with. When he is revealed to be something of a paleface soulmate, you can't help wondering if Weir has temporarily taken leave of his senses. The mystery represented by the aboriginals, particularly Gulpilil (who played the adolescent warrior of "Walkabout") as the young defendant who has appeared to Chamberlain in a dream and Nanjiwarra Amagula (a tribal justice of the peace in Grotte Eylandt) as the old shaman Charlie, evaporates when it appears that the meek, overcivilized hero is actually on their wavelength, a throwback to a more spiritual race of men.
Weir's story is weakly constructed, and he comes close to wrecking his mystery by explaining too much. The aboriginals lose their compelling inscrutability and nature its ferocious unpredictability by being reduced to a filmmaker's playthings.
Despite its fundamental weaknesses, "The Last Wave" is the sort of movie that makes you sit up and take notice.
Sophisticated Australian directors may be able to express feelings of cultural isolation and precariousness with exceptional visual emphasis and pathos. Weir probably needs to discover or help develop screenwriters who can reinforce his pictorial talent with concretely dramatized horror fables. At the moment Weir suggests a bold skipper trying to navigate with a leaky vessel.