THE LAST WAVE started like a pebble in a pond, skipped via a muse of director Peter Weir, who wondered “What if someone with a very pragmatic approach to life experienced a premonition?” Its eventual production was in turn generated by the seismic creative temblor that unleashed the Australian New Wave of the 70s and 80s. A vital part of that torrent was Weir’s previous dreamscape story, Picnic At Hanging Rock, the success of which gave him the needed backing for his 3rd feature, this eerie 1977 blend of mystery, mysticism and meaning, culture clash, clues and cataclysm.
In the midst of some disturbing and unusual meteorological phenomena, Sydney lawyer ‘David Burton’ (Richard Chamberlain) is tasked with defending five Aboriginal men against a homicide charge. The case pits tribal justice against “civilized” law and sees David undergo a profound and terrifying paradigm shift around contesting realities when he seeks answers from enigmatic ‘Chris’ (David Gulpilil), one of the defendants, and ‘Charlie’, an unsettling shaman (Nandjiwarra Amagula). Seek literal and figurative Higher Ground, because Something’s coming…
Like the unsolved disappearance in Picnic at Hanging Rock, this creates a mood atmosphere all its own, as a pensive meditation on the psychically confusing and spiritually challenging collision of ordered society against unseen, inscrutable natural forces cosmic indifference. When the bewildered barrister tries to shake understanding out of Chris and convince him of the trouble he’s in, he’s forewarned back that he’s the one in dire straits: “You don’t know what the dreams are anymore.”
Chamberlain, 43 here, was picked by Weir and the producers both for foreign/Stateside appeal and for his intelligent mien with an angular, rather haunted visage. Though more people would see and recall him (84 now, still at it) for his TV work on Shogun and The Thorn Birds (he was good as one of The Three Musketeers, in its best version), I think he was at top form in this less-seen film. Gulpilil, 24 here, became the essential cinema representative for Aboriginals, starting in Walkabout, later in Crocodile Dundee, The Right Stuff, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Australia and Charlie’s Country (which he co-wrote, and won Best Actor at Cannes). Amagula, an Aboriginal tribal magistrate from Northern Australia, made his only film appearance as the intense shaman.
Fittingly, as it deals with perception, the carefully pieced-together story and resolution are left open to interpretation. With ‘Picnic‘, this remains Weir’s most enigmatic film (too much so to draw a large general audience as it tasks them to think), but like his subsequent slim but stellar output of bigger, more expensive, polished and successful productions it has the attributes and themes they would all share. In vivid settings, his characters undergo a survival trial by fire in always excellent, sometimes fully magnificent movies marked by their intelligence, beauty and humanity, an array as good as any you could ask—Gallipoli, The Year Of Living Dangerously, Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Green Card, Fearless, The Truman Show, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Way Back.
106 minutes, with Olivia Hamnett, Fred Parslow and Vivean Gray. Cinematography by Russell Boyd, the second of six voluptuous collaborations for the director. Co-scripting with Weir were Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu.
The Last Wave barely rippled at the US boxoffice when, initially re-titled Black Rain, it made its way over two years later, grossing but $866,250 in art house showings. That’s roughly $3,608,500 today. It did better on its native turf in ’77, taking $1,258,000 in Australian dollars, equivalent to $6,923,000 in 2018. To produce it had cost AU$818,000 or $4,501,000 today.