Retro Review: The Last Wave

“It is one of the most mysterious and moody films to ever emerge from Australia, and its status seems to have been unfairly overshadowed by Weir’s preceding film.”

Written by David Morgan-Brown

With the wet weather entering Australia again, now seems like a suitable time to give this forgotten classic of Australian cinema a rewatch (or a first time viewing). A mysterious and stunning thriller-drama to come from the enigmatic filmmaker Peter Weir, The Last Wave was also one of the very first films ever to take Indigenous Australian mysticism (and its relation to white culture) seriously.

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The Last Wave is not just a reasonably spoilery title, but refers to the incredible wetness on display. The opening scene shows a rural school in the dry desert under an unclouded sky be pelted upon by hard rain, assaulted with ferocious thunder, and soon followed by large hail-stones, all coming from an unknown source that will continue to plague the weather throughout the film. 

Although only loosely connected to the main story, it sets the creepy and fearful tone of this mystery-thriller that uses spirituality to infuse a great sense of dread in the literal-minded white culture. The clash of cultures comes when Sydney lawyer David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) is appointed a sort of case previously unfamiliar with him: the unusual murder of an Aboriginal, by a tribal gang, by what appears to the film’s viewers as a ‘psychic stabbing’.  

David questions the tribe members living in the city, including Chris (David Gulpilil), but he gives him more apocalyptic warnings than answers. David feels eluded by Chris and the older leader of the tribe, Charlie (Nandjiwarra Amagula), but finds more sense in his dreams, which may also be acting for him as devastating premonitions. 

Weir’s precise and eerie handling of both reality and dreams, and their possible mergence, is astonishing and had been unprecedented in Australian cinema before (and maybe ever since). The slow movements of the camera, particularly in the dream sequences, offer an eerily creepy subjective view of David and his haunting dreams (which actually look, sound, and feel like real dreams), and this dreamy mood is supported by the sparse, unsettling, quiet, wintery night-time sound design of raindrops on the roof and frogs croaking. 

Richard Chamberlain and David Gulpilil in The Last Wave.

Following from the equally enigmatic Picnic at Hanging Rock (which at the time was a huge success, but only in its home-country), Weir continued with another film of such a mysterious and elusive quality, yet made plenty of changes. He moved away from the ethereal mood of the 1920s setting of Picnic and placed The Last Wave in current times, and he also moved away from Picnic’s sunburnt yellow-orange look for something more damp with grey-blue tones.

The concept of The Last Wave came when Weir and his wife were vacationing in Pompeii in 1971, where Weir’s fascinations with mysterious disappearances, ruins, and old rocks were combined. An encounter with a premonition ignited the idea behind The Last Wave – what if a rational pragmatic person, like a lawyer, was confronted with such an enigmatic and unexplainable experience.

It was an ambitious production for the still young Australian New Wave, with the large budget used on a number of special effects, most of which included an immense amount of water, used not just for rain but for the creepy underwater premonitions that David experiences. 

Nandjiwarra Amagula in The Last Wave.

There was a sense that this moody thriller would generate more of a crowd in non-English speaking countries than in Australia, so it was screened at film festivals in Paris and Tehran (winning awards in both) a few months before its Australian premiere on 13 December 1977. Australian critics reacted favourably, which was good news for distributors who put their quotes of praise on the posters when it was shipped internationally, where it garnered even more critical praise, though the ending was sometimes criticised as being too inconclusive and not feeling like the appropriate climax for such moody build-up. 

Though the title of The Last Wave makes it sound like one of the surfer films that were so popular in Australia throughout the ‘60s, this film is much unlike them and much unlike any other film that had been made in Australia (or perhaps has been since). It is one of the most mysterious and moody films to ever emerge from Australia, and its status seems to have been unfairly overshadowed by Weir’s preceding film. The Last Wave ought to be reappraised as a film experience that intelligently highlights the differences in making sense from white and Indigenous culture, whilst building up an apocalyptically doom-laden atmosphere that will leave a haunting resonance on any audience member. Just like the trailer says, watch this and “your dreams will never be the same again”. 

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