The movie starts with the weather in Australia taking a sudden, unexplicable turn for the worse: the cities and villages are literally drowning in the rainwater, giant blocks of ice and snow are falling from the sky, the rain suddenly turns black. The weather conditions in the rest of the world are no better. Experts blame everything on the pollution.
Meanwhile, in Sydney, a white lawyer named David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) is called upon to help investigate the case of homicide that happened in the Aboriginal community. It seems like a fairly usual case at first. But why is the cause of death so difficult to explain? Why does David keeps seeing one of the suspects in his dreams? What is that strange symbol that keeps appearing along with him? There cannot be magic involved... can there? Before you know, the world around David and his personal life plunge to hell.
This film, along with The Cars That Ate Paris and Picnic at Hanging Rock, is part of Weir's Early-Installment Weirdness period. It deals with many themes, such as: the difference between the world and worldview of the white Australians (and, by extension, modern Westerners) and those of Aboriginal Australian people (and, by extension, the traditional, so-called primitive, societies), the reaction of humans to natural cataclysms, mythology, the unknown and the indifference of nature towards her creations.
The Last Wave provides examples of the following tropes:
- Absurdly-Spacious Sewer: In the climax.
- All Myths Are True: All Aboriginal Australian Myths, anyway.
- Apocalypse Wow: The very last seconds of the film.
- Being Watched: The protagonist and his family have been watched by Charlie.
- Better to Die than Be Killed: When Chris says that he is going to "return to the dreams", it's pretty obviously implied that he is going to commit suicide, because he would die anyway now that he has broken the rules of his tribe.
- Break the Cutie: The Burtons.
- Cosmic Horror Story: Not on a cosmic scale, though: the upcoming cataclysm only concerns our planet.
- Children Are Innocent
- Culture Clash: One of the prevalent themes in the movie is the difference and misunderstanding between the white Australians and the Aboriginal people.
- Dreaming of Things to Come: The main power of the Mulkurul. And since David is a Mulkurul, his dreams are this trope.
- The End of the World as We Know It: According to Aboriginal Australian Myths, each cycle of history is finished by a global cataclysm. Too bad that the events of the movie are set before the end of the cycle.
- Eternal Recurrence: The part of Aboriginal cosmology.
- Fish out of Water (ironically enough): One of the themes that this movie explores is people's reaction towards the unknown and unexpected.
- Foil: Charlie to David.Peter Weir: Here we have two men: one white, one black; one tribal aboriginal, one highly sophisticated Western civilized man. Both fine men. One of them has material wealth; one has spiritual wealth.
- This description can also be applied to David and Chris.
- Gaia's Lament/Gaia's Vengeance: Subverted; the upcoming disaster isn't caused by our neglect towards the nature, that's just the way things go — one era is succeeded by another, which is accompanied by a great flood.
- Genre-Busting: The movie can be classified as a horror film, a drama, a mystery, a disaster film, even a fantasy story — but at heart, it's not any of these.
- Giant Wall of Watery Doom: Yep.
- Heroic BSoD: The whole movie is one gigantic BSOD for David, his wife and, less overtly, but no less importantly, for Chris. But what takes the cake is David's despair at the very end of the movie, when he sees the wave looming over the land.
- Killed to Uphold the Masquerade: Chris is afraid that it will happen to him and David and refuses to give more information about the case because of that.
- The Last Title: The title.
- Mad Artist: When introducing Charlie to Mrs. Burton, Chris says that he's an artist. Indeed, we see Charlie creating petrographs in the opening credits (probably, the rock paintings David sees in an underground cave were created by Charlie too). That may not equal the modern Western definition of "artist", but the "mad" part remains anyway.
- Mathematician's Answer: David tells Chris about the cryptic dream he's had and asks what he has seen. Chris' answer: "A dream".
- Mighty Whitey: The Australian society as portrayed in the movie deconstructs it — the white and the Aboriginal people live in completely different worlds, don't know or understand one another, and it doesn't look like the Aborigines are all that better off under the white people's rule. However, rather interestingly subverted in David's case: he is a Mulkurul, a clarvoyant with a connection to the Dreamtime from the Aboriginal folklore. However, the Mulkurul doesn't equal white people, and besides, David fails to inform the people about the upcoming danger anyway.
- Missing Mom: David's mother died when he was a child. Since he's a Mulkurul, he has foreseen it in his dreams.
- Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: Why, hello there, Charlie.
- Our Ghosts Are Different: According to Word of God here, Charlie is a ghost of one of the members of a tribe that formerly lived where Sydney is now, who took on human form.
- Proper Lady: David's wife, oh so very much.
- Psychopomp: David's stepfather reminds him how he thought that the taxi drivers take you into a different world when you sleep, when he was a child. That idea is actually very close to Australian Aboriginal beliefs about Dreamtime — and since apparently Aboriginal Australian Myths are true, we can assume that's what really happens.
- Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: If the conflict between cultures in the movie could be classified at all, Aborigines would represent Romanticism, and white Australians reperesent Enlightement.
- Voluntary Shapeshifting: Charlie can turn into an owl.
- Wasteland Elder: Charlie's tribe that formerly lived where Sydney is now is almost completely wiped out, and its culture is all but forgotten, yet the Aborigines look up to him.