Thursday, February 23, 2017

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Last Child (1971)

Set in “the not too distant future,” The Last Child (1971) is a TV-movie concerning overpopulation, and, specifically, the ways that the U.S. Government might respond to such a crisis.

Overpopulation surfaced as a major issue of the 1970s science fiction cinema, in films such as Z.P.G. Zero Population Growth (1972) and Logan’s Run (1976), in part because of Dr. Paul Ehrlich’s alarmist and bestselling text, The Population Bomb (1968), which predicted whole populations starving into the 1970s and 1980s, and recommended draconian procedures to resolve the issue.

The Last Child doesn’t boast the imagination or budget of a Logan’s Run or Z.P.G., but it is an exciting and highly disturbing TV-movie about a dark future.  It resolves, finally, into action tropes -- with a car chase, no less -- but remains engaging and provocative nonetheless.

In The Last Child, it is against the law for American families to conceive more than one child. If a family’s child dies after more ten days, this law remains in effect, and a second child cannot be conceived legally.

By the same token, anyone sixty-five or over may not be treated with any medicine that would cure a disease. Instead, senior citizens can get pain medication for their suffering, and that’s it.

In response to these new laws the U.S. has developed a powerful legal agency: The Population Control Enforcement Section. 

Agents in this section can arrest and incarcerate women pregnant with second children. They can also induce abortion in women who are less than six months pregnant. 

Those fetuses with more than six months of development are allowed to be carried to term, and then executed after birth. Doctors who perform the procedure insist that this “disposal” of babies is done with “kindness,” and “quickly…with efficiency.”

As the film begins, a couple -- Allan (Michael Cole) and Karen Miller (Jane Margolin) -- secretly get pregnant with a second child. Their first child died after 15 days, and they still want desperately to be parents.  Unfortunately, an agent for Population Control Enforcement, Barstow (Ed Asner), arrests Karen at a grocery store and she is incarcerated, pending delivery and disposal of the baby.

Karen’s brother, Howard (Harry Guardino), however, works in the government and is able to get her released quickly, so long as she agrees to relinquish the baby on delivery. Karen and Allan agree with these terms, but only to get Karen released from custody. Afterwards, the Millers flee New York on a train after stealing a ticket, and head for Massachusetts.

Barstow pursues the couple, but the Millers receive unexpected help in the person of retired senator, Quincy George (Van Heflin), who gives the pregnant couple sanctuary in his house.

Barstow attempts to arrest them, but Quincy won’t allow it. Barstow strikes back by refusing to allow the elderly senator, a diabetic, to receive his insulin shots. Technically, they are against the law at his age (72).

Howard attempts to bring Karen and Allan back to New York, but ends up assisting them escape Barstow. Together, Howard and the Millers flee for the Canadian border…

“In this day and age, not every human being has the right to live...”

The Last Child is a scary “what if” story that -- because it was made pre-Roe v. Wade -- is often held up as an example of a vehemently pro-life film.

This is a bit of a stretch.

Abortions do occur (and are state-sponsored) in the frightening totalitarian world of the film, but, of course, in real life, Roe v. Wade didn’t cause the government to go around aborting babies without a mother’s permission.

And, I guess, the film also drew some attention in 2011, as “death panels” entered the national discourse, since The Last Child also imagines a world in which the elderly are denied medication that would treat their conditions.  Again, we know now that the whole “death panels” discussion was hyperbolic fake news, designed to build resistance to the Affordable Care Act. No grandmothers or grandfathers have been harmed (or denied medicine) through participation in Obamacare.

The Last Child is still scary, however, for a few significant reasons, even if not as “predictive” of the future as some conspiracy theorists would have you believe.

First, the way that the physician discusses “disposal” of a living baby with the Millers is dehumanizing and awful. He isn’t talking about a medically-necessary procedure, after all, but one which conforms with a government policy. His assessment is that not all people, in this future, have the right to live.

That is a monstrous philosophy, in and of itself, but it is even more monstrous in terms of how the law is applied.

Late in the film, for instance, Barstow wants to negotiate with Senator George about his insulin. The officer is willing to overlook the law, and make certain that George gets his medicine, so long as he gets custody of the Millers. 

The question, of course, is why is a rich and powerful (white) man above the law? But a young couple, with no power, are not? 

Why can Barstow look the other way regarding the Senator’s medical infraction, but not look the other way for the Millers?

Laws like this wouldn’t work, hopefully, because they are inhuman, but also because -- as The Last Child suggests -- they would likely be applied unevenly, and unfairly.

The Last Child is also scary because it imagines a totalitarian world in which everyone’s legal and parental history is recorded on a national identity card.  Police and population enforcement agents can access private information through the card.  

And worse, the card is also a credit card, suitable for making payments with.  This means that the government can “freeze” your access (and your accounts) if it discovers you have broken the law regarding two children.  This is a really terrifying invasion of privacy, and the film does a good job of exploring just how difficult it is to hide or defy a technologically-advanced totalitarian state.

Alas, The Last Child falters in some key areas. 

First, what has occurred in the world that has led the United States to take such a hardline approach in this “future”? This made-for-TV movie doesn’t give the law any kind of context, except to note that it exists. 

What made the representatives of the people push for such a harsh law in the first place?

It’s vital to know that information, otherwise the laws as pictured here just some totally arbitrary and vicious.  Even bad laws have a context behind them (think: Prohibition). The movie leaves out a crucial piece of the puzzle by failing to explain how this “future” world got to this point.

There must have been some event, or incident, that led the United States to take such drastic steps.  Without telling us what that was, The Last Child is just, in some senses, kowtowing to feelings of paranoia.

Secondly, all the action in The Last Child devolves into a car chase near the Canadian border, and that’s disappointing. Too many thoughtful issues have been brought up for the film simply to go into “action” mode.  And the death of Asner’s character -- his car careens off a cliff -- is emblematic of the film’s two-dimensional thinking.

Barstow, like him or hate him, is an official law enforcement agent of the United States. Presumably, he is doing his job with the Millers. Yet the movie treats him like a silent movie villain; someone to hate and despise (even though he is obeying, not defying the law).

The Last Child succeeds because of the focus on Karen and Allan, and their dilemma. It puts us in their place. 

What would you do, if you wanted to be a parent, but the State forbid it?

I suspect many of us would do actually what the Millers do in this film: defy an unjust law, and make a run for it.

I just wish that the film provided more background detail about its future world, and thus allowed us to understand why such a terrible law could come into place.

1 comment:

  1. This review triggered an odd memory. Because The Mod Squad aired from 7:30 to 8:30 on Tuesday nights and the Tuesday Movie of the Week aired from 8:30 to 10, they would have Michael Cole do these brief intros for the movie of the week at the end of Mod Squad. That night, I found it strange to see him introducing himself like, "you just watched me, now watch me again." Anyway, I remember being quite disturbed by this movie. I was only six years old at the time, and the idea of the government killing babies and grandparents was quite upsetting. Sometimes I wish my parents had exercised more "viewer discretion" where my TV habits were concerned.


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