The Last Wave (1977)
Written by Peter Weir, Tony Morphett, and Petru Popescu
Directed by Peter Weir
Australia has been a land profoundly defined by its colonialist nature. The divide between the descendants of European settlers and the indigenous people is the story at the continent’s core. The Last Wave attempts to examine how even “well-meaning” Australians are simply never going to fully understand the complexity of Aborigine society, and that is simply how it is. This is related to the cultural roots of the settlers in punitive, authoritarian religious movements while the Aborigines live under a much more esoteric system of beliefs. But, more importantly, the film is about how Aborigine spirituality prepares its people far better for the chaotic shifts of the universe than the dogmatic Christian religions.
Bizarre weather begins to emerge across Australia. Thunderstorms pop up in the middle of the Outback, with large pieces of hail falling from the sky and injuring people. While the white Australians react in horror, the Aborigine people show a strange calm. David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) is a lawyer in the country’s public advocate system and is called on to represent four Aborigine men accused of murdering one of their own people. The circumstances of the killing don’t appear normal to David. The victim drowned in an impossible shallow puddle of water and clenched stones bearing native markings. David begins having visions of Chris (David Gulpilil), one of the accused men. The lawyer’s descent into Aboriginal spirituality leads him to believe that the weather signifies the apocalypse has come to Earth.
It should be noted that the white man amid the natives played as a horror story was a common trope in literature and media at this point. It was almost always designed to frame the native people as inhuman, the source of the terror, and the white man as noble for overcoming it. In The Last Wave, this is inverted. The arrival of the Europeans on the continent was a form of apocalypse to the Aborigines. The impending next wave of destruction is rooted in these colonial forces. Because the white people are incapable of processing what is happening around them, they are exacerbating the worst of this transition.
What makes The Last Wave so profound still today is that it centers on the idea that white Europeans live in a strange reality out of sync with nature and spirituality that goes back much further than the origins of Christianity. The twist is that the indigenous people can move between their perceptions of reality and exist within the white man’s. However, the white men do not possess this ability; their way of life is so unbending and impossible they are stuck. This is represented in conversations about the Dreamtime, the idea of another world just as real as this one where our consciousness also exists.
Even more brilliantly, for most of the film, white characters talk about the Aborigines as if they are experiencing the same malaise and confusion over modernity that their white counterparts do. One of David’s colleagues laments that the colonists destroyed every aspect of the Aborigine world. These comments place tremendous power in the hands of the white people while also serving as an act of humility & guilt of the white savior complex. The Aborigines are much better at weathering that sort of cultural and even physical genocide, whether killing them through disease or breeding them into white people, as the Australian government did. Despite the horrors visited about the native people, they still endure; they remain, and so does all the richness of their ancient culture. The Dreamtime is that realm of the infinite in which the Aborigines can pull from to sustain themselves. The white man has no similar aspect within their spirituality.
All of this means that when the titular final wave, a tsunami of untold destructive power, makes itself known in the closing moments of the picture, it’s the colonists we should pity. They lack the spiritual fortitude needed to pass through this chaos, but the Aborigine people will draw from the Dreamtime to survive into whatever comes next. Their lack of technology and development in the eyes of the Europeans reflect their myopic thinking of the natives. This continues themes explored by Weir in Picnic at Hanging Rock, juxtaposing the natural world with the tightly constructed systems humans have put in place to “tame” this wilderness. The power of nature will always win, and it is up to humanity to learn how to adapt to it and find the places where they fit if they hope to survive and develop as beings who share this planet with the rest of life.