I want to be the first person to admit I didn’t pay the closest attention to this movie. In my defence, though, I’m not entirely sure it’s possible to pay particularly close attention to it – to call its pace funereal is an insult to funerals, and it contains about as much “stuff” as the average moderately boring episode of a genre TV show.
“The Last Wave” was discovered when my group of friends and I were looking around for new HP Lovecraft-based stuff to watch, and one of us found this listed with “mythos influenced” movies. Now, “mythos influenced” is quite a way different from full-on adaptations of his stories, and your standard definition reads something like that ordinary life is a thin shell over an egg of extreme weirdness (alien / abstract), enough to send a person mad if they thought about it. How does this fit in?
“ Wave” is part of the strong run of Australian cinema in the 70s and early 80s – stuff like “Walkabout”, “Wake In Fright”, “Picnic At Hanging Rock” and “The Cars That Ate Paris” (both made by this movie’s director, Peter Weir), “Mad Max”, “Breaker Morant” and “Gallipoli” (among many others). Mel Gibson made his name in this era (no system is perfect) and Nicole Kidman would come along a few years later. What this did, though, was import a star rather than create one, and that man was Richard Chamberlain, who played a lot of action roles for a guy who looked like a strong breeze would blow him over. He’s a lawyer in this, specialising in corporate taxation, and for some reason is asked to do a pro bono case involving some Aborigines who’ve been involved in a death. We know the death was caused by a mysterious chap wiggling a “magic” bone about, but Chamberlain doesn’t – what he does know, though, is he’s having all sorts of odd dreams involving Aborigines and their culture, a mysterious rock with patterns carved into it, and this compels him to both accept the case and start digging more deeply.
And here’s where the movie sits, for most of its 100+ minute running time. Richard becomes obsessed with the case, although we don’t really witness much of that, we’re just told by his friends and loved ones. As the weather gets increasingly violent, he learns of a prophecy about a huge wave which will cause untold destruction, and how a person with prophetic powers (him, in other words) can save the world. It’s much less fun than this paragraph might have you believe. The ending, where he goes to a special underground cave, steals a bunch of tribal relics and then loses them all on his way up to the surface, is just laughable.
It feels weird being so down on this movie, as it’s pretty well beloved. It’s been given the Criterion Collection treatment, and Peter Weir is a really good director; but this just didn’t work. The crime that he spends so much time investigating doesn’t really feed into the conclusion of the movie at all, and perhaps trimming that down and having Chamberlain just be the naïve foreign lawyer who becomes fascinated by Aboriginal culture would have been a more interesting way to play it. But it’s just so slow, and while that worked in spades for “Picnic At Hanging Rock” (one of the most beautiful and frightening movies ever made) it really doesn’t here. It’s just a lot of a bloke in an office, or following someone through the ugly streets of 1970s Sydney. The occasional beautiful scenes and images aren’t quite enough. Or even close to enough.
But we’re victims of our expectations. If I’d not heard anything about this being recommended to Lovecraft fans, I’d have had more of an open mind and may have enjoyed it more, but then again, I’d have probably never watched it in the first place if that was the case. Vaguely magic-realist race relation dramas aren’t usually my cup of tea, nor that of the fine website you’re currently reading.