STRANGE THINGS are happening Down Under. Thunder crackles across cloudless skies, huge chunks of hail fall in the desert, black rain plops eerily down on Sydney. What could possibly be causing it all? The National Weather Bureau assures everyone that these mysterious phenomena are only the side effects of industrial pollution. But are they? As thousands of tiny frogs appear in the city's streets and the sky takes on a pulsing violet glow, it looks like there might be something a bit more sinister than carbon monoxide behind Sydney's strange weather, something far more deadly....
Such is the basis of Peter Weir's new film The Last Wave, a rather stodgy thriller involving Aborigines, magic, secret underground cities, and Mother Nature at her most perverse. This is Weir's fourth film, the first to be released in this country, and in it he shows a keen sense of how to create suspense, and an unnerving inability to deliver. His first talent makes Weir one of the more innovative filmmakers around, with a vivid imagination and the ability to infuse the most commonplace events with an eerie sense of the unknown. His second talent, however, consistently undoes all he sets up. As he tries to explain away the bizarre situations he creates, he falls back on just about every old cliche one can imagine, and manages to make this film as disappointing in the end as it was promising in the beginning. He doesn't just beat a dead horse--he tortures it, and watching The Last Wave, one gets the feeling that Weir is still one giant step away from being a satisfying director.
The plot revolves around Richard Chamberlain as a Sydney corporate lawyer living an idyllic suburban life with his wife and two adorable little girls. When the weather begins to act strangely, Chamberlain is unconcerned. His life is ordered and promising--he plays tennis on Sundays on his backyard court, spends a lot of time troubleshooting on the phone ("Right, Ed, I'll check on it first thing Monday morning"), and any strange occurrences in the outside world can be quickly swept away with a flick of the wiper-washer switch on his blue-gray Volvo. Ignore for the moment that Chamberlain seems to have only recently been introduced to his family, that his wife (Olivia Hamnett) is rather oaken, and that Chamberlain, who supposedly grew up in Sydney, hasn't a trace of an accent--because things are about to get rolling.
THINGS GET ROLLING when, for reasons never explained, Chamberlain decides to take on a murder case involving a group of Aborigines. The motives for the murder are clouded in the defendants' stoicism, but as Chamberlain begins investigating, he suspects that the murder has something to do with tribal magic and a system of tribal law which is incomprehensible to white trial lawyers, with their profound sense of rationality and orderliness. This suspicion is strengthened when Chamberlain begins to have strange dreams. He is haunted by the silhouette of a naked Aborigine who appears in the rain outside his window--a startling image of man's primitive past. Even stranger is a dream he has in which one of the missing defendants in the trial appears in his living room, a savage in a leather jacket, holding a ceremonial carved stone while a low grunting sound emanates from the floor.
Chamberlain's colleagues begin to doubt his sanity. They are adamant that Aborigine tribes exist only in the Back country, that the city Aborigines are as modern as the next fellow. His wife becomes frightened by her husband's odd behavior, his dreams, his sojourns into mysticism, and takes the kiddies away to the country. But Chamberlain keeps digging, convinced that there is something supernatural there, and that somehow the Aborigines are tied in with something he cannot understand.
As these events unfold, the film is riveting. Chamberlain may not do much acting, but his juxtaposition with the Aborigines is brilliant. Chamberlain--the embodiment of the pretty male, a youthful, lightweight, civilized fop, contrasts perfectly with the well-weathered figures of the Aborigines, who bring a note of intensity to the screen, a doomed majesty from another time. When the Aborigines arrive at Chamberlain's house for dinner, they are beautifully out of place. Dressed in ill-fitting suits, they seem to be a part of Sydney's white world, but as they quietly eye the Steuban Glass, the Merimekko prints and the ancient carved stones--which are now nothing more than sophisticated living-room knick-knacks--one can see the gulf between Australia's past and the clean fragile work of the men who settled the country. Two full-blooded Aborigines--Gulpilil, who was magnificent in Walkabout, and Nanjiwawwa Amagula--are superb actors, able to carry a scene without a word. They bring tremendous life to these scenes, and dignity to the entire picture.
At this point Weir gets in trouble. Chamberlain goes to see an expert on Aborigine life, and she explains to him that the Aborigines believe in a dream time, a world of dreams in which the living communicate with the dead, a world in tune with time, nature and life, which is as real as our present-day reality. Things begin to tie in: Chamberlain's dreams... the Aborigines... the strange events in the weather. But it's too easy. Weir has spent a great deal of time building tension, creating atmosphere, invloving the audience, and to resolve the entire plot with the old voodoo hocus-pocus is an irritating letdown. Furthermore, Weir gets increasingly caught up in making The last Wave a disaster-movie morality-play--maybe these primitive people aren't so primitive, maybe the white people have destroyed a much more advanced civilization (shades of Chariots of the Gods). "Why didn't you tell me there were mysteries?" wails Chamberlain to his minister father, "Why did you explain them all away?"
All of this tends to make the film increasingly silly. Weir gives up on making the characters anything more than symbols, points on the line between evil white and primitive good. A few scenes of the ghetto in which the Aborigines live are lifeless, the city has no character, and the film disintegrates into stock effects. Chamberlain discovers a secret Aborigine city beneath Sydney, and learns that an ancient white civilization was destroyed by a giant tidal wave, and that another one is due very soon. Some sort of eternal justice will destroy the white man's injustice. At the very end of the film, Chamberlain escapes from the underground city only to look up and see the big water.
WEIR SEEMS TO THINK that this quick view of the apocalypse is enough to have an impact. But aside from the fact that one never sees the wave hit Sydney, the reasons given for its appearance aren't too terribly plausible. There is a magnificent scene which sets up the wave, the highpoint of the film: Chamberlain is in his car and daydreams that the wave has hit and as he looks outside he sees well-dressed pedestrians floating beneath the blue-gray water, groceries floating slowly upwards. But this scene occurs three-quarters of the way through the movie, and it is all downhill form there. The vague moral dilemma of Weir's explanation is unconvincing. But then again, how could it be convincing? One is supposed to empathize with the Aborigines, but they are constantly shoved into the old ooga-ooga voodoo role. Their acting is far too intense to be taken lightly, and seeing them prancing around an obviously paper-mache underground temple makes one very aware that the director is faking it. The moral dilemma is an excuse for not being able to come up with a better ending, and it makes the movie very difficult to accept. If there is any sort of supernatural justice, if directors ever have to pay for exploiting old themes, for substituting self-righteous liberal indignity for imagination, then you should see Peter Weir float by any minute now.
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