You never know, when you go back to a movie (or anything) that stunned you with its excellence when you were young, if you'll cringe in affectionate embarrassment for your younger
self. (Personal case in point: Women in Love, and anything else connected with D. H. Lawrence.) Or if it'll just be dated and boring.
The Last Wave still astonishes.
The film is wonderfully weird. It gives the mysteries of the subconscious their due; it doesn't seek to tidy them up.
And while it shows that some traditional cultures can find their way in the dark better than high-tech culture can, it doesn't tidy them up either.
The main character, played by Richard Chamberlain, is a tidy-minded white corporate lawyer in Sydney who takes on a legal-aid case defending a group of Aborigines.
His dreams are unsettled, full of disturbing, prophetic images he can't understand.
The weather all over Australia has been strange. Hail falls in the outback.
Sydney is deluged with rain, day after day.The lawyer starts seeing apocalyptic images of the city underwater.
This is a gorgeous film, and it calls on film to do what it can do so well: use images and sound--including the unplaceable sound of the didgeridoo--to tell the story. Words are back up. The movie is narrative--there's a linear plot and everything--but its feels dreamlike.
(This past summer's Inception is the opposite. Ostensibly about dreams, it relies on the characters' words to explain everything. You feel like you're inside a video game--with detailed instructions. In fact, Inception is not a movie about dreams; it's a caper/heist flick. A fun one too! But it has more in common with Ocean's 11 than with
The Last Wave.)
Through one of the
defendants (David Gulpilil, right, of Walkabout fame),
Chamberlain's character realizes he is
tapping into a way of perception that Aborigines call dreamtime.
Its laws have absolutely nothing to do with tax law, and they draw Chamberlain farther and farther down-- into himself, his fears, and his city, until he follows Gulpilil through the sewers under Sydney to an ancient sacred site.
You can see the story as a warning about the power of Nature, which we ignore to our detriment---global warming, for instance, tsunamis, oil volcanos, the floods in Pakistan.
Or it may be (both can be true) that the story is not meant literally; possibly, the weirdness is all happening in Chamberlain's mind.
The movie could be depicting one man's breakdown as his rational self is flooded by his subconscious. His dreams, so long repressed, like the sites under Sydney, come to the surface when he meets the Aboriginal man who is fluent in the irrational.
(The weather is just the weather.)
The whole thing could be a picture about what might happen when someone so deeply wedded to logic is forced to confront the irrational.
This is no Dances with Wolves, where the nice sympathetic hero from the dominant culture fits tidily into a wildly different way of being.
It explores the limits, rather, of how far a person's mind could stretch beyond their safe reality before it snapped.
How much warping of our perceived reality--the illusion that we have everything under control, for instance--can we tolerate?
Do we really want to know what would happen if the plumbing broke?
The director leaves it up to the viewer to determine what's going on. It's a film, not a sermon. But if you want to know more about what he was thinking, read this interview with Peter Weir, by Judith Kass, or watch this special feature, below, included on the Criterion Collection DVD.
Btw, I note that Weir's good with water. He directed Master and Commander too.