In THE LAST WAVE (1977), directed by Peter Weir, an Australian lawyer has apocalyptic visions that put him in a collision course with aboriginal culture. It’s a slow burn, a mystery, a mood piece, and it’s brilliant.
In the film, David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), a lawyer specializing in corporate law and living in Sydney, is contacted by Legal Aid to help defend several aboriginal men accused of murder of one of their own. Some of the city aborigines, it seems, continue to practice tribal laws and customs going back 50,000 years, and they’re guarding an enormous secret.
Burton is drawn to the case because he has been experiencing strange prophetic dreams involving Chris, one of the aborigine defendants, and what may be the end of the world. Burton appears to be able to tap into the aboriginal concept of Dreaming and the Dream Time, a meta-layer of spiritual existence that is in many ways more real to them than physical reality.
As strange weather events plague Sydney and Burton becomes increasingly embroiled through Dreaming and small revelations of the mystery by Chris, he becomes increasingly obsessed and concerned about the security of his family and the world he lives in. But Charlie, the aboriginal elder, while interested in Burton’s spiritual abilities, doesn’t want him to know their secret because tribal law is more important than men, and it must be obeyed under penalty of death.
Burton’s spiritual journey takes him deep into the world of aboriginal beliefs and finally into a secret place below Sydney, where the mystery is at last revealed. The question is whether he can warn the world of what is to come or if it is inevitable. The final shot may be taken literally or as prophecy.
I enjoyed the complexity of the film. Burton’s comfortable middle class life falls apart as the ultimate stakes become increasingly known to him. At first, he’s concerned with the murder trial, but ultimately that may not matter. The aboriginal culture and mythology presented provide provide terrific mystery. Chris in particular is an interesting character as a guardian of the secret who nonetheless sees in Burton some kind of spiritual authority to eventually know the secret. The truth is fed in drips, leading up to a satisfying ultimate mystery, though one is left with the ultimate question of whether Burton has the power to change the future or is merely discovering a terrifying inevitability.
The final result is an end of the world film that is unlike today’s typical more adrenalin-pumped, CGI-enhanced fare. It’s character driven, intelligent, moody, slow and centered more on unraveling the apocalyptic mystery than the apocalypse itself. In short, with the right expectations, it’s a brilliant film and one of Weir’s best.
In this video, Weir describes the film, what it was like to make it, and how it impacted him: