Peter Weir’s The Last Wave is an engrossing, quasi-mystery, quasi-fantasy, quasi-horror, quasi-science fiction film. If all those “quasis” make you a little queasy, that is completely appropriate. Made with unquestionable skill and imagination, it also undeniably offers a strained effort at profundity that skirts the risible as often as it hits home. It is enjoyable as long as you don’t think about it too much or too long. Unfortunately, Weir obviously takes things very seriously, striving for Art and often falling short of the mark.
Richard Chamberlain is a corporate attorney who accepts a pro bono defense of a group of aborigines accused of murder. They nonetheless are notably reluctant to help him get at the truth of events. As Chamberlain tries to persuade their leader, Chris (David Gulpilil, from Roeg’s Walkabout) to talk, the weather is going berserk. Hail storms in the Outback, petroleum from the sky, and in-between it all, nearly constant rain that no one can explain, provide the backdrop to the unfolding story. In the process of trying to figure out the murder, Chamberlain gets caught in a far deeper mystery that explains the freakish weather.
If that sounds like a bit of a jump (murder mystery becomes meteorology?), the disconnect between the two themes points to what is both good and bad in The Last Wave. The plot threads that tie things together feel like nothing so much as white guilt grafted on to wooly thinking. On the other hand, as strained as these efforts to merge the rational and irrational may be, the movie remains effective. The imagery and sounds have their own unsettling, jagged, inexplicable power, and thus are not conducive to rational explanation. That very inability of the rational mind to explain such phenomena is arguably the point of the film.
Which doesn’t mean, however, that we have to accept that surrender to the voluptuous embrace of the irrational. If you step out of the overheated environment for a moment, you can recognize both the manipulation at work, and the gaseous inflation substituting for perception and insight. Weir and company hedge their bets with a supporting character who criticizes Chamberlain for romanticizing the aborigines in order to fill an inner void. It’s a crafty bit of hypocrisy, as if the filmmakers are trying to avoid the same criticism by anticipating and expressing it in the film itself.
Aside from the fact that this character serves no plot function except to be proven wrong, by the time he makes his assessment of Chamberlain’s behavior, the film is too far along its path of lush obfuscation to take the criticisms seriously. Weir clearly wants to have it both ways. As long as you don’t think about the contradictions, The Last Wave is a nerve jangling, often beautiful film. As soon as you see the glue pasting things together, it falls apart.