Dream Is A Shadow...Of Something Real: The Last Wave (1977)

Peter Weir is an interesting director his subject matter and overall cinematic oeuvre are quite spectacular, yet each films is inherently different and the most keen of cinephiles find themselves forgetting that he directed certain films because of their uniqueness.  For a rather in-depth analysis of the director I cannot recommend enough the blog Frederik on Film, which intensely analyzes the auteur, picking out key shots to match each film thematically across Weir's ever expanding career.  I myself intend to do a similar analysis of Danny Boyle in the future, but for the time being, I will simply focus on The Last Wave as a stand alone film, one that is rather early in the directors career.  A dark film, The Last Wave, is a psychological thriller of sorts that is more in line with Ken Russel's Altered States, than something like Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, to which it is often compared.  It is a classic commentary on the abrasive effects of colonization, yet in Weir's crafty hands it also becomes a study of an aging marriage, a focus on the troubles of antiquated methods of law and most importantly the problem of projecting one's ideologies about life onto an individual despite their methods of living being completely foreign.  Weir's approach never seems to preachy and manages to stick quite nicely to its genre, yet at no time throughout the intensely filmed piece of cinema do viewers question what is being said, in fact, one will find themselves constantly amazed by the layering of ideals portrayed within the movie.

The Last Wave opens rather simply with a group of children playing during recess, only to have their games interrupted by an intense storm that produces a deluge of water and enormous pieces of hail.  After this rather inconsequential event, we are shown Sydney at night, while an unnamed Aborigine flees fellow Aboriginals.  Just at the moment when he thinks he has escape, an elder Aborigine sticks a wand out of a car, stopping the young man in his tracks and killing him in the process.  This inexplicable death, later determined to be a heart attack results in skepticism on the part of local law enforcement and as a result they hire a well-known corporate tax lawyer named David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), who agrees to the task partly out of pity, but also because of eerie dreams he has been having involving visions of an aboriginal boy.  Initially it appears as though Burton will fail to get through to the young men do mostly to language barriers, but the emergence of a well spoken Aborigine named Chris (David Gulipilil) who explains that it is impossible to describe the mans death, because it involves actions from the "dreamtime," which is a shadow of the reality in which he and David live.  This bizarre revelation is only greatened by Chris introducing David to his friend, and elder Charlie (Nandjiwarra Amagula) another individual who has occupied David's dreams.  In the process of defending the group of aborigines, David becomes obsessed with the notions of "dreamtime," so much so that he becomes distanced from his family and even begins attempts to obtain relics and tools from the Aborigine ceremonies.  As David becomes obsessed with what he believes to be an impending apocalypse, he finally confronts the elder shaman in an underground lair, who is none other than Charlie.  It is during this confrontation that he discovers a subterranean labyrinth of tribal wonders, items he attempts to take with him, particularly a stone mask that appears to resemble David.  In a fit of panic he drops the mask and escapes with intentions of warning about the last wave of destruction that will destroy Sydney, however, he fails to make it in time and falls to the ground to visions of the wave hitting the city.

As noted in the introduction, the film is incredibly concerned with colonization and its affects on urban Australia.  David is clearly the outsider to urban life, living in a nice home on the countryside, preoccupied with tennis and his well to do children.  Furthermore, he is a corporate tax lawyer and defends individuals who are clearly fine off as it is and have no need for more benefits.  It is not until the outsiders preoccupy his mind that he must acknowledge their presence, because he is literally unable to function without doing so, and it is only made clearer by the fact that his friends and wife dismiss his concerns as frivolous.  Only David is concerned with the struggles of these individuals because only he deals with it on a mental and visceral level.  Yet with all his concern for the Aboriginal peoples, he is not only incapable of grasping their ideals, but his inevitable exoticization of their culture leads him to a position of greed and lust that results in his downfall.  For David, it becomes a desire not to prove that the men are innocent, but instead to show that he has come to understand the inner working of an exclusive group...this is clearly not the case.  The wave that is to cleanse Sydney then becomes more relevant as it likely represents a removal of notions of class, race and perhaps gender from societal dominance.  Ironically, David cannot blame the native peoples for the apocalyptic results, because as he realizes upon finding his visage in a mask in the films closing scenes, it is wholly his fault from a position of power for not helping to end such destruction.  He and the world he comes from clearly ignored the destruction of those below and his slighted attempts at redemption were simply too little, too late. 

Key Scene: The opening sequence with the storm is rather intense and grabs viewers into what will be a crazy film.

The Last Wave is one of the lesser acknowledge films within The Criterion Collection, but as avid followers of the company know that usually means that it is one of the best gems in the entire catalog.  Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, before it suffers the tragedy of inevitably going out of print.

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