[Weir's] films—lush, beckoning fantasies, promising exotic vistas from strange new lands—have a seductiveness befitting an emergent cinema. Unfortunately, Weir's deftness with 'atmosphere' seems to have been developing at the expense of any narrative or thematic sense. The tantalising promise of Picnic at Hanging Rock was that the lush, repressed romanticism of its Victorian girls' school setting might have become its subject—implying that it was the secretiveness and fearfulness of this culture that had generated the unsolved mystery of the plot. But unwilling or unable to make more of this, Weir used his lyricism largely to fill in holes in the story: creating minor mysteries about incidental characters and generally wrapping events in mystical cotton wool. Such, more or less, is what has also happened to The Last Wave…. (pp. 121-22)
It is a film of disparate elements, which take a long time to slide into focus. The first half hour of so is the kind of allusive, foreboding scene-setting which is Weir's specialty: in a desert township, a sudden rainstorm and then huge chunks of ice come crashing out of a cloudless sky; in Sydney, freak weather conditions make the rush-hour traffic even more trying for lawyer David Burton…. David begins to suffer from recurrent nightmares of a dark, indistinct figure, approaching him through watery hallucinations….
David is called in by a friend in a legal aid office to help in [a murder trial of aborigine youths] and discovers that one of the boys, Chris Lee …, is the figure of his dreams. Although the youths are unwilling to talk, David becomes obsessed with the idea that the crime is related to some ancient tribal secret (and to the increasingly strange weather). His efforts to press Chris on this point lead to the film's third and most mystical level: David is himself a throwback to an ancient spirit race who, in aboriginal lore, were the first inhabitants of Australia; his dreams represent some stirring of that previous life, connecting him both with the aborigines' secret and the prophecy of cleansing holocaust which that race left behind.
But long before the film has clinched this final revelation, a double awkwardness has set in, on both narrative and thematic grounds. The mechanics of the murder investigation and the subsequent trial seem, for one, an irrelevant construction, a rather clumsy device for bringing David and the aborigines together. Related to this are the sporadic attempts to motivate the hero, or at least to lend him the complexity which will support his later prophetic role. Such exposition tends to jut self-consciously from the film…. Once having detached them from an overweeningly colourful background, Weir has never been able to shape or define his characters with much confidence.
But if the film proceeds by fits and starts in this respect, at the deeper level it fails to jell at all…. In the jostle of his plot …, Weir never really establishes the validity or even the full significance of [the aboriginal] elements, allowing them to be undercut by the cruder cliffhanging devices: the escalating dream sequences and the final flurry of action in the underground temple of David's forebears.
In particular, the invocation of some weighty tribal 'secret' being guarded by the young aborigines, buttressed for a while in the script by a running argument as to whether city aborigines have any tribal ties, becomes an elaborate red herring…. In the end, the local inflections of The Last Wave float by on the general banality of its holocaust and hocus-pocus model. (p. 122)
Richard Combs, "Film Reviews: 'The Last Wave'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1978 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 47, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 121-22.