The Last Wave is a 1977 supernatural thriller from Australia, a spooky art film.
The movie opens with the first of many rain-related climatological oddities. Shortly thereafter, a group of Aborigines kills another Aborigine in Sydney, evidently because he has somehow betrayed them or stolen from them.
Apparently in Australia there are special legal provisions for certain Aborigines, sort of like Indians on a reservation. Some tiny percentage of Aborigines are recognized as having maintained their lifestyle, and their cultural, tribal institutions. When one of them commits a crime—I would think only a crime against each other—the courts cede jurisdiction to the tribe to deal with it internally.
But it is understood that those few, scattered, “tribal” Aborigines live out in the wild, a thousand miles or more from a major city on the coast like Sydney. So this crime is treated like a barroom brawl manslaughter.
However, ample reason is provided to the viewer to infer that these are rare urban “tribal” Aborigines who have somehow secretly maintained their mystical beliefs and practices in the middle of Sydney, and that the murder had something to do with their defending their culture against someone who was going to expose it or harm it in some way.
A white legal aid lawyer is assigned to their case. They are for the most part not cooperative defendants; they don’t want to tell even their lawyer anything about the religious significance of the killing.
The lawyer becomes obsessed with the case and with the Aborigines. He is plagued by scary, bizarre, possibly prophetic dreams that they hint they know the meaning of.
For the bulk of the movie, there are many possibilities where this is going. Is he some sort of messenger that they have been awaiting, a positive figure to them? Is he a threat to them, someone they must stop from finding out too much? Are they tricking him into believing these things about his dreams, when in fact nothing supernatural is going on? How does it all tie in with the weird weather? Are there scenes that the movie seems to be presenting as happening in real time that he, or another character, is actually dreaming? Are there scenes presented as dreams that are instead actually happening?
The Last Wave has a nice, eerie quality to it. The visuals—often slow, dreamy water and rain-based shots—and the bizarre background pulsations of music or sound effects or whatever, are well and carefully chosen.
I’ll also say—at the risk of being somehow offensive, though it’s not in the slightest intended as a derogatory remark—that the Aborigines are downright interesting looking. I’ve seen a handful of movies and such with Aborigines, but I can’t recall them ever looking this different. They’re almost as dark as Africans, but have a very different facial structure. Maybe a little closer to South American Indians, but really not very close to that or any other more familiar group.
They look like if you were casting a science fiction movie and you wanted people on another planet to be recognizably humanoid, but still substantially different looking from earthlings.
That’s purely a function of their being unfamiliar to me—there’s certainly nothing inherently better or worse or more exotic or more normal or whatever about their looks—but I found myself intrigued by their faces whenever they were on screen.
As the movie wound down, it was hovering on the border between thumbs up and thumbs down for me. A movie certainly loses points with me for presenting as true primitive magic-based religion, which this seemed to be doing, but otherwise it was decent. I liked the atmospherics, and I was moderately interested in the mysterious storyline. So how the ending of the movie resolved the various questions that had been raised was set up to be the tiebreaker in my assessment.
Then it ended with an incomprehensible, artsy muddle. I was able to take some educated guesses at very roughly what it might be depicting, plus I then cheated and spent a half hour online reading about the movie, but I still only got it to a very limited degree.
Not that there’s necessarily anything to “get.” The ambiguity of movies like this is generally intentional and essential. It’s not as if there’s something “really” there if you just look closely enough or think about it more. I don’t think, anyway.
I’ve made no secret in these pieces what I think of obscurity for its own sake like that in movies, how unsatisfying I find it. A lot of people—a certain type of intellectual, art critics, people who champion emotion or spirituality over reason, etc.—feel exactly the opposite and would say that this kind of lack of clarity is all to the good.
The Last Wave does a lot of things well, and even the things that I don’t see as being all that good will appeal to many moviegoers. So I certainly am not saying it’s a bad movie, and I wouldn’t steer people away from it, as long as they understand what type of movie it is and that type appeals to them. But for me it’s a narrow thumbs down.