Wednesday, February 02, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: ZPG: Zero Population Growth (1972)

In 1968, author Paul R. Erlich had an unexpected best seller with a book entitled The Population Bomb.  It sold over two million copies and yet was vociferously derided by the forces of the extreme right and the extreme left in America. 

In short, Erlich's book suggested that if birth-rate trends continued unabated, over-population would cause mass starvation and country-wide die-outs in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Since we survived those years and decades without any such famine or mass-deaths, it is tempting to gaze at The Population Bomb today as just another end-of-the-word scenario that didn't come to pass.   At the time of publication, critics widely termed The Population Bomb "alarmist" for what they termed the author's wild "predictions."

But jokes, political agendas, and critiques aside, The Population Bomb remains an initiative that contains at least some kernel of currency in our world today; the idea of Earth's "finite capacity to sustain human civilization," as the author himself put it in a defense entitled The Population Bomb Revisited, available in The Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development. 

In terms of film theory, if we recall the axiom that movies universally mirror their socio-political contexts, then The Population Bomb is certainly a major "bugaboo" and influencing factor in the late 1960s and early 1970s genre cinema.  This period -- pre-Star Wars (1977) --  was a highly inventive one for filmmakers, who veritably obsessed on dystopian futures and apocalyptic scenarios. 

Aside from the brilliant Planet of the Apes films (1968-1973), the social commentary of  John Boorman's Zardoz (1974), and the satirical Death Race 2000 (1975) there were several major films of this epoch that explicitly broached the topic of overpopulation and suggested (mostly horrible...) ways to "sustain human civilization" in the event of planetary disaster. 

Among these  notable efforts were George Lucas's visually-dynamic THX-1138 (1971), the macabre Soylent Green (1973), the colorful and action-packed Logan's Run (1976) and the subject of today's review, ZPG: Zero Population Growth (1972).

In some ways, ZPG was just as casually dismissed by critics of the day as had been The Population BombThe New York Times' Vincent Canby wrote disparagingly of the film that it was "a sometimes funny (unintentionally), untimely meditation on the earth's over-population problems, set in some future smog-bound England where the World Deliberation Council has decreed that for 30 years there shall be no babies born.  Women mad for motherhood who refuse to be content with mechanical dolls programmed to say "Mummy, I love you Mummy," take to giving birth in cellars and stealing each other's offspring."

Even in science fiction circles today, ZPG is rarely discussed or debated, despite the fact that it is an intriguing and rather forward-looking scie-fi film.  A grave atmosphere of despair hangs over the entire picture, and the film by director Michael Campus paints an unforgettable portrait of a totalitarian society that controls every aspect of the citizenry's day-to-day life. 

Most importantly, however, ZPG is worthwhile for the main questions it zeroes in on.  What sacrifice is too great to save the planet?  And secondly, should one generation be the one to carry that enormous burden?

"We conquered cancer and then heart disease...and for what?"

A hovering government craft announces the Zero Birth Edict; and forecasts Blade Runner's (1982) megapolis. 
Set in an unspecified future, ZPG begins as "The Society" and the "World Deliberation Council" announce over a smog-filled metropolis the inception of the "Zero Birth Edict."   For thirty years, no women will be allowed to bear children.  Women already pregnant are to be registered with "The Department of State Security."

If, during this thirty year ban on child bearing, a woman does become pregnant, she has two options.  She can report to an "Ab Lab" (an Abortion Lab), or have a home abortion courtesy of a new bathroom appliance apparently installed in all houses.

At home abortion appliance, in close-up.
In the latter case,  the pregnant woman need only press her swollen uterus against a kind of belt-like radiation device (glowing red) and hit the "abort" button.

If, however, a woman should choose to go to term and is discovered, she and her husband (and the child too...) are captured, then suffocated inside transparent, mobile tents, in full view of the disapproving community-at-large. 

Those citizens who report such "criminals" are rewarded with bonus food rations.  In the world of ZPG, child-bearing is "the gravest crime" imaginable.

Alas, the "Zero Birth Edict" is only the latest indignity that this unfortunate culture must suffer.  The surfeit of smog in the atmosphere has rendered the air largely unbreathable, and outside, all citizens must wear face masks, or make occasional stops at air stations strategically located throughout the city.

And overpopulation also means long lines to visit the local museum.  The wait to get in -- for an hour, no less -- is four years, according to the dialogue.  At the museum, you can also see extinct species like cats and dogs...stuffed, and featured in action-poses in dioramas

Another grim scene reveals a restaurant overflowing with patrons.  Diners-in-waiting stand everywhere, surrounding seated diners, looking forever over their shoulders as the lucky ones eat first.

Despite the difficulties of this future, many companies have discovered a way to make a profit in such dark times.  The "MetroMart" is a TV-based department store-- that forecasts the Internet and online stores -- and makes a killing selling artificial Christmas trees and other rarities.  And then there's "Babyland," a store where mechanical dolls are sold to men and women who long to be parents.  The store's motto: "You come to us as a man and a woman, you leave as a family."

One of the best and most horrifying scenes in the film involves Babyland, and the desperation of prospective parents as they meekly accept plastic automatons as their "children."   These child dolls -- who make whirring, mechanical sounds when they turn to look at you -- are the stuff of true Kinder Trauma (to name drop a great web site).  They walk, they talk, they demand attention, and their eyes are as dead as you can imagine.

The heart and soul of ZPG involves a young couple, Russ McNeil (Oliver Reed) and Carol McNeil (Geraldine Chaplin), who break the Zero Birth Edict and decide to conceive a child.  They do so, I hasten to add, without really thinking out the consequences for their baby.  Because of the Society's law on children, Carol must give birth in an old civil defense bunker.  And worse than that, the child can never -- in his entire lifetime -- leave the bunker, for fear of discovery.

Russ and Carol's world has gotten very, very small.
The birth scene in ZPG is crafted artistically, if also in grim fashion.  It is a natural birth, since no doctors can be present.  The director, Campus, charts the delivery entirely by focusing on the silhouettes moving over the bunker's stone wall.  It's like a weird cave birth from man's prehistory, a strange futuristic book-end to a long-forgotten and humble beginning. 

There's also a terrific shot in the film of Russ and Carol (pictured above) -- looking defeated -- inside that civil defense bunker.  Their world is now tiny; they are visually, metaphorically and literally trapped, even as they seek to escape The Society's Zero Birth Edict.

After the baby is born, the infant develops a fever, and Russ and Carol's neighbors, George (Don Gordon) and Edna (Diane Cilento) discover what the McNeil's are hiding. Now these also-desperate, would-be parents want to "share" the baby, and their demands on Russ and Carol just grow and grow.  This passage of ZPG is a truly horrifying look at human nature.  George and Edna resort to blackmail.  They let Russ and Carol know that they could report them to The Society at a moment's notice, if the parents don't cave to their demands.  This is ugly but also strangely believable behavior.

Refusing to give up or share their child, Russ and Carol make a last ditch effort to escape their neighbors and the rules of The Society...

"It is as it is..."
A bonafide Kinder Trauma: Bonnie is ready to greet her new parents at "Babyland." 
There's not a single action-sequence or consequential effects sequence in ZPG, save for establishing shots of the city and the overhead vehicles that patrol it and catch law-breakers.  Yet this 1972 film is fully engaging because of Carol, the character played by Geraldine Chaplin.  She is desperate to be a mother, but her society has determined that no woman in her generation will be permitted to play that role. 

There are no do-overs in life. We all get one shot on this mortal coil, and yet Carol -- for the sake of the planet -- is asked to give up her child-rearing years; her only shot.  She is in her late twenties, perhaps, so will be too old in thirty years, to become a mother.    The joy of being a parent is thus something forbidden; never for her to experience.  This situation raises all kinds of moral questions.

Does the good of "The Society" and the need for the human race to endure outweigh the personal dreams and aspiration of one woman, or one man, for that matter?  

And secondly, why is it so hard for Carol to share her joy -- her baby -- with one other couple, once she has staked out her position of defiance?  Make no mistake, the movie lands firmly on Carol's side: she is right to reject the inhuman State that dominates her life; but there's another side too, that the movie subtly hints at.

Carol (Chaplin) and Russ (Reed) conceive a child.
Perhaps what it all comes down to is that Carol and Russ are just regular married folks, even in this crazy, Orwellian future.  They want to live free, as they wish, and want to experience what we all do, particularly parenthood. They aren't fantasy heroes, or larger-than-life icons.  They're just regular folk. 

They make some big mistakes in the movie, but that fact only makes them all the more human, and therefore touching.  There are times during the film you will grow infuriated with Carol and Russ for their decisions -- and for their lack of planning -- but you also understand their deep desire to be a family.

I wrote above that ZPG is a forward-looking film, and in several ways, it predicts the future world of Blade Runner (1982).  For instance, the opening scenes of the film involve a slow, hovering craft that makes governmental announcements to the populace far below.  In Blade Runner, it was a blimp advertising "off world opportunity" but the image in ZPG is very much a primitive version of the one in Scott's (far superior and more accomplished) film.

"This is called a gas pump..."
In terms of our society today, well, we've already seen some of strange things come to pass in the last decade, and ZPG is very prophetic.

The idea of citizens turning in and spying on fellow citizens in ZPG is oddly reminiscent of the Bush Administration's proposal for "TIPS" the so-called "Terrorism Information and Prevention System" of 2002. It was designed to help "every American become active in the homeland security effort," much in the same way that the Society uses informants to report violators in the film.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are scenes in ZPG during which citizens are indoctrinated by movies that describe how poorly previous generations selected their diets and portion sizes.  In other words, "The Society" of the film tells people exactly what to eat and how much to eat.  And, of course, there are those on the right side of the political spectrum who feel that the current Obama Administration has taken the first steps down that same road.

So there's ample fodder here to read the film both as a critique of both right wing excess (particularly in the depiction of the companys' profiting off of the misery of Zero Birth Edict) and left wing excess, namely in the depiction of a Nanny State gone berserk.

But beyond questions of left and right, and of today and yesterday, ZPG is fascinating because of the questions it raises about community vs. the individual.  What would you give up to save the planet?  

Would you surrender your right to become a parent? 

Furthermore, what would you give up for the pursuit of your liberty in general?  And if you pursued that liberty, what if you risked the very future in the process?

I can't declare that ZPG is always smart or knowing about the answers to these questions, only that it raises them in a fascinating and frequently terrifying way.  Most of all, I'd describe the movie as haunting.  Late in the film, there is a montage of Carol, Russ, George and Edna playing with the "illegal" child.  The images are joyous: the realization of a dream, of an aspiration.  But the montage is scored with sinister, nay diabolical music that grows more and more unsettling as the sequence reaches its crescendo.

In microcosm, this scene gets at the problem of our human condition (and human contradictions).  We want our species to survive, but we also want the freedom to live life our way.  Carol and Russ want a baby, period; they don't think about the future.  There is no sense of balance, of weighing immediate gratification versus long-term stability.  I mean, what kind of life will that baby have in this world, especially if other parents make the same choice as Carol and Russ?

Then the world would end; the planet couldn't sustain everyone.  And yes, that would mean an end to the corrupt, Big Brother-esque Society, but also an end to love, and to all future generations of children.

I also appreciate how the film adopted the perspective of the future in several important, satirical scenes set at a museum.  On display in one such sequence is a 1971 gas tank and automobile, utilized as an object lesson for how the 20th century culture used up resources without any thought to the future.  A later scene terms industrial leaders "inept" and even "criminal" for fostering the destruction of our environment, and the wholesale extinction of so many species.   

If a future like this does come to pass, it will be us -- the Boomers, the X'ers, etc. -- who are under such a microscope; who are judged for the way we live today.  Right now, I'm not certain the future will judge us so kindly, but as always, I hope there's time to reverse that judgment.

Not an easy or simple movie to parse; but ZPG is an underrated science fiction gem, and one well worth seeking out.  Don't go in expecting action and special effects. 

Here, it's all about the concept and the characters, and a grim vision of the future that I hope is as erroneous as The Population Bomb's was in 1968.


  1. Excellent look at this film and the concept, John. I think I saw it long, long ago, in fact. Certainly, I recall the talk surrounding the doomsday scenario depicted here, ahem... back in the day. Heck, even ST:TOS dedicated an episode toward it in The Mark of Gideon. The current variation of the Population Bomb has to do with the Peak Oil scenario, I believe. World population has risen in lockstep with the discovery and use of oil.

    Besides its use in energy, petroleum has impacted agriculture in ways (i.e., fertilizers) that has benefited food production. And greater food supplies has fed the boom in people. Prior, the world's steady pop was roughly between 1-2 billion. It then has crept, along with oil consumption, to where it's at today (just under 7 billion). Theory goes that once oil has 'peaked', the decline in energy, and especially food production, will have a dramatic effect on the population since the 4-5 billion are excess. They're only here because of that fossil fuel use. And when it runs out...

    Fascinating reading... and food for thought. Great post, my friend. Thanks.

  2. Le0pard13:

    Thank you for the great comment, my friend. I'm glad you brought up Star Trek and "The Mark of Gideon" -- that's a perfect example of how The Population Bomb was a motivating factor in the pop culture, on TV as well as in genre film.

    Your description of oil's use in food production is dead-on frightening, and reveals how a Population Bomb scenario could indeed come to pass when fossil fuel supplies dry up.

    There was a terrifying documentary on this subject this last year, called "Collapse," which I strongly recommend. Scary thoughts; and ZPG is a scary movie too, at least in terms of implications.


  3. Strange, as much as I am an aficianado of dystopian sci-fi, I can say I've neither never seen nor heard (specifically) of this film. Weird because I've seen most of those types of films from that era (THX 1138, Farenheit 451, Boy and His Dog...even the documentary Future Shock)....any idea why this isn't better known or is rarely shown anywhere??

  4. Hi Indianhoop,

    You ask a good question. And I don't really have an answer!

    ZPG is a low-budget film, poorly-reivewed at the time of its release, and subsequently by later generations of critics. Maybe that's why it is so "unknown."

    The subject matter is also provocative and there is stuff in here (like the abortion button...) guaranteed to to outrage all sides of the political spectrum.

    Since the movie came out soon after The Population Bomb and around the same time as other films about overpopulation (THX-1138 and Soylent Green, specifically), I can't for the life of me understand why Vincent Canby chose to dismiss the film as "untimely."

    It may not be a perfect film, but how was it untimely in 1971-72?

    It's a very interesting film, and available on Netflix. I definitely recommend it. Even the DVD print is pretty poor, though, with sound and picture issues, so the perhaps the problem was one of distribution or of getting the rights for a TV or DVD release.

    But it is very interesting...



  5. Wow, I vaguely remember seeing this in elementary school, but maybe I'm thinking of something else. At any rate, great thoughtful piece. I'm a big population control advocate, but of course I'm childless and happy about it, spared the compulsion to procreate and mystified at those people who just 'have to' - is it some biological urge? I can only guess. The problem as I see it is just this anti-death fear that makes us all think that once you're born you should live forever and dying is a sin or something to be fought even if it means poisoning your soul. If the death rate is allowed to match the birth rate we should be fine, but the best minds and money of our world fight to make sure as many people are born and don't die as possible...for what reason? We see the problem today with a huge voting block of out-of-touch senior citizens who make sure no new radical human rights are granted (like legalized pot or gay marriage) and contribute nothing to society but huge medical costs and expenses that the rest of us must pay and pay. I could rant on and on and on, but I did on a post for the C-Influence. If this subject makes you mad, don't hate on the messenger, just examine why you are so terrified to admit the deep ambivalence you have about life and death in your soul's core, that's the ticket to set you free if you only know where to cash it in.

  6. Hi Erich,

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I agree with you that sometimes the balance feels wrong with the way humans live; but imposing any one way to live feels uncomfortably like the totalitarian "Society" of ZPG. You know?

    Somehow, we need to find the right balance of individuality and community; and maybe it does involve teaching acceptance of mortality, rather than denying death. I don't know the answer, but I do appreciate how ZPG raises the questions.

    Warmest wishes,


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