The dopey 1970s science fiction premise: overpopulation has made most of the Earth an uninhabitable pile of garbage. People are relegated to large, smog-filled totalitarian cities where they need to wear gas masks when out in public and listen as government propaganda-spewing drones hover above them. In an effort to combat the effects that dwindling resources are having, all the countries in the world have implemented a policy of zero population growth and forbidden anyone for having children for the next thirty years.
But big government knows the little woman at home really wants a baby of her own to play with (and let’s be honest – men just want sex and football so that aren’t too worked up by all this) so they create dolls to substitute for real kids! Just head down to the Baby Store (sorry – no infants currently in stock) and you can get a doll that will talk (like a cheap doll), suffer from minor childhood illnesses and even push a stroller a few feet!
Total futureshock! Viewers will be left stunned at what they see! A society where adults can’t wait to “take care of” dolls that any reasonable child would roundly reject as crappy! A movie where these dolls don’t end up running around murdering people, but instead just sit there, not only doing nothing, but actually being so terrible at satisfying people that when confronted with a real baby, folks go instantly insane smashing their own doll and desperately wanting a real baby! (The movie missed a opportunity to really show how twisted things had gotten by not having the woman arrested for “abusing” her government issued doll.)
Russ and Carol (Oliver Reed and Geraldine Chaplin) are a couple who decide to buck the system and go ahead and have a real baby despite such conduct being punishable by instant execution right in the city streets. In an effort to hide this from the all-seeing surveillance state they live in (the movie at least go that part of our awful present correct) Carol moves into the old abandoned fallout shelter below their apartment, having pretended to leave Russ so their friends won’t get suspicious.
Their friends though eventually discover Russ and Carol have a real child, but instead of reporting it to the authorities (smartly incentivized by the government in the form of a reward of increased rations), they instead become obsessed with the child, wanting to be a part of its life to the point where they demand that Russ and Carol hand it over to them for good.
The understated manner in which Z.P.G. presents all this, with its zombie-like characters practically whispering their lines while they go about their day doing nothing of interest is strangely at odds with the overstated and heavy-handed way the film delivers whatever its message is. I suppose we were supposed to take this as a warning. But it wasn’t clear what that warning was.
On the surface it was that we need to stop polluting and stop having so many damn people milling around on the planet. But how will this be achieved? Through a single world government mandating all this? With every bathroom equipped with its own abortion machine and people forced to have what amounts to “back alley births” the whole thing comes off as some left wing globalist wet dream. Except the movie shows how horrible a single government forcing such things on people would be and the “heroes” reject all of it and escape with their outlaw baby!
Philosophical and political schizophrenia isn’t the movie’s downfall though. It’s much simpler than that. It’s that while none of it is convincing on any level (even Russ and Carol’s escape plan doesn’t make sense, choosing to get caught and then making their escape instead of just doing it earlier), it’s all done in such a restrained manner, there’s no real drama or suspense for the viewer to get caught up in. Most of the movie feels like we’re just eavesdropping on people who are so dull and colorless, we just tune them out. The film has its characters just hopelessly flail along in their miserable existence until the “climax” which sees Russ wowing us with his boat paddling skills.
A few years later, Logan’s Run had a similarly dumb premise (anyone over 30 is euthanized), at least that film was smart enough to distract us from that by making it into a more action-oriented chase film. Z.P.G. though instead subjects us to visits to the 1970s museum (light on disco and Watergate and heavy on extinct animals and disgustingly primitive habits like outdoor picnics) and the tedious relationship between Russ and Carol and their friends.
Chaplin at least works hard at being the woman determined to be a mother no matter the costs, while Reed looks miserable to even be stuffed into his futuristic jumpsuit like some big blue Soylent Green sausage, let alone suffer through a story that has all the life of one the film’s unimpressive dolls. Perhaps demonstrating that attempting to turn a best-selling book of the era like The Population Bomb into a movie is just a flat out bad idea, 1971’s TV movie The Last Child did the same thing and was just as bad, though at least had the good sense to be 30 minutes shorter and end with a car chase!
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