Sep. 11, 2008
The Last Wave (1977)
Grade: 66/100

Director: Peter Weir
Stars: Richard Chamberlain, David Gulpilil, Nandjiwarra Amagula

What it's about. Set in Sydney, Australia. Five Aborigines face a manslaughter charge. They are accused of killing another Aborigine, even though the cause of death is uncertain. Enter Richard Chamberlain, a lawyer committed to their defense.

Chamberlain lives in relative wealth with his moderately attractive wife Olivia Hamnett and their two ideal young daughters, Katrina Sedgwick and Ingrid Weir (real-life daughter of the film's director). Chamberlain is plagued with nightmares and visions, which involve David Gulpilil, one of the defendants. Gulpilil realizes the significance of the visions, and questions Chamberlain, accompanied by Nandjiwarra Amagula, the leader of their tribal cult. Gradually, Chamberlain realizes that his visions, along with the recent turbulent weather, anticipate an impending natural disaster that will devastate Sydney.

How others will see it. The Last Wave was nominated for a pile of AFI awards, the Aussie equivalent of the Oscars. The critical success of the film, along with Picnic at Hanging Rock, set director Peter Weir up for Gallipoli, his best movie.

Viewers will be glad to know that there are no Mad Max dialects difficult to understand. The film dabbles in science fiction, horror, and the occult, yet remains accessible. Those who suspect that Chamberlain is a sissy should nonetheless be satisfied with his sensitive performance. After all, he must be troubled by his dreams, committed to the safety of his family, and sympathetic to the plight of the Aborigine defendants.

How I felt about it. Accepting The Last Wave means that the cinematic Aborigine myths must be taken at face value. That is, an outsider possessed by an Aborigine god will foresee the 'cleansing' apocalypse. The sacred place of the Sydney Aborigines contains implements and drawings symbolic of the arrival of the prophetic spirit. If all this is so, then the importance of Chamberlain to the Aborigines is obvious. He knows when the tidal wave will arrive and wipe out the city. In the end, Amagula is sacrificed to allow Chamberlain to secure the implements necessary to allow full possession of the spirit and confirm the nature and timing of the disaster.

So, the story eventually makes sense, even though it requires viewer extrapolations nearly to the extent of a much better film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The question then becomes, once the movie is understood, has it been worth the effort? I believe so. This is unlike Suddenly, Last Summer, where the convoluted ending appears bogus. The message of The Last Wave is clear: get out of Dodge before sunset.