What usually lends charm to the work of filmmakers from Down Under is the way they've remade American genre films without ever acknowledging what's gone before. It's a kind of naivete. But in the case of "The Quiet Earth," New Zealander Geoff Murphy has brought none of that freshness to a tired science fiction tale. You might as well be watching an old Arkoff-factory war horse on Channel 20.
"The Quiet Earth" is the old last-man-on-Earth story. Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) awakes one morning to find that no one's around. He phones; nothing. He drives into town; nobody. As long as the movie stays weird like this, as long as the catastrophe remains unexplained, "The Quiet Earth" has a strange beauty, as well as one of the nuttiest scenes in sci-fi history: Zac blasts into a church with a shotgun, shouting for God, stomps up to a crucifix, and says, "If you don't come out, I'll shoot the kid!"
Alas, it's downhill from there. There are cheesy special effects and silly gags. Zac, of course, isn't the last man on earth -- there's a girl (Alison Routledge) so there can be romance, and another guy (Peter Smith) so they can fight over the girl.
Lawrence, a brooding, broken-down presence with a sloping brow and heavy eyes, brings some energy to "The Quiet Earth" -- you wish he had more to do. Director Murphy ("Utu") has a kind of genius for action sequences (they're cut superfast, and come straight at the lens), but action isn't what "The Quiet Earth" is about. Since Zac was a scientist working on the infamous Project Flashlight, he can explain at great length exactly what happened. Mostly, the three yak at each other about man playing God with the universe. By the end, you wish the earth were a little more quiet.
The Quiet Earth, opening today at the Key Theater, is rated R and contains violence, nudity, sexual situations and profanity.