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DVD SAVANT

Z.P.G.
Zero Population Growth


Z.P.G.
Legend Films
1972 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 96, 105? min. / Zero Population Growth / Street Date June 3, 2008 / 14.95
Starring Oliver Reed, Geraldine Chaplin, Don Gordon, Diane Cilento, Birgitte Federspiel
Cinematography Michael Reed, Mikael Salomon
Production Design Anthony Masters
Art Direction Peter Hajmark, Harry Lange
Film Editor Dennis Lanning
Special Effects Derek Meddings
Original Music Jonathan Hodge
Written by Frank De Felitta, Max Erlich
Produced by Tom Madigan
Directed by Michael Campus

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The early 1970s saw the release of a number of ecologically themed science fiction movies, many of which were severe box office disappointments. Joni Mitchell's song Big Yellow Taxi ("They Paved Paradise and Put Up A Parking Lot") was a hit, and so was 1973's Soylent Green, but the films No Blade of Grass, Silent Running, THX 1138 and Rage were in and out of theaters so fast, some of them became instant lost curiosities. Z.P.G. (in the UK, Zero Population Growth) is a cheerless thriller that borrows ideas from novels about dystopian futures, in particular Logan's Run. Oliver Reed and Geraldine Chaplin are citizens of a controlled future where childbearing is punished by death. Viewers will be reminded of the recent Children of Men, which shares a similar conclusion. Both films focus a sense of wonder on the birth of a child, but Z.P.G. is simply too poorly written and directed to command our attention.

Synopsis:

In the future, the poisoning of the planet has resulted in the extermination of animal life and most plants; people live in pressure domes, eat synthetic food and wear breathing face masks when out of doors.  1 To get the population under control, the all-powerful government is forced to issue an edict that no more babies can be born for 30 years. The people wail but submit. Eight years pass and life trudges on. Citizens concealing illegal children are caught and executed -- the babies too -- and informers are rewarded with food chits. Childless married couple Russ and Carol (Oliver Reed & Geraldine Chaplin) waits for hours to receive a government-supplied artificial child substitute, a doll programmed to be needy and provide a psychological focus. Carol doesn't want one. A psychiatrist (Birgitte Federspiel of Babette's Feast and Ordet) can't help Carol, who contrives to illegally conceive. Russ decides to back his wife on this suicidal plan, and is almost caught at a computerized library trying to look up childbirth procedures. Avoiding the 'Big Brother'- like surveillance TV over their bed, the couple takes a 'child doll' as camouflage and prepares a secret room to house their baby. When it is born, their friends and neighbors Edna and George (Diane Cilento and Don Gordon, from Bullitt) find out. Edna has become neurotic for want of a baby, to the point of 'murdering' her adopted doll-robot. Edna and George insinuate themselves into the position of co-parents, with the quiet threat that if the foursome is caught, they'll not be the ones to suffer -- only parents and illegal children are liquidated. Russ and Carol realize that their next move will have to be an extreme one.

Z.P.G. assembles a great many generic elements in a way that yields only a couple of interesting moments. Elements of the highly original Orwell story 1984 had by this time been so over-used that the only really fresh take on the subgenre was Woody Allen's comedy spoof Sleeper. As soon as we see the unpleasant conditions in the crowded domed city, we know that our heroes will try to escape. Most of what happens in between seems a narrative obstruction.

Director Michael Campus and writers Frank De Felitta & Max Erlich's future folk reflect their environment by behaving like dehumanized automatons, thus negating the potential of proven actors. Reed and Carol endure the movie in a state of depression; when Geraldine Chaplin finally smiles, it's as if her face has broken open. Everyone wears unattractive padded boiler suits that resemble better-tailored Korean cold-weather wear.

The movie suddenly comes to life when the contraband baby arrives. The parents are finally able to behave like recognizable humans, while the neighbors hover about in adulation. One excellent scene has Carol sneaking out to a rest home, where a sympathetic retired obstetrician tenderly declares her baby to be in perfect health. The logic here is good, as the overwhelming desire to raise a child overrides Edna and George's sense of fairness and decency. How many parents discover that their commitment to their principles goes out the window as soon as an immediate advantage for their child is at stake? The two couples' obsession with the new baby looks like love, but their behavior plays like psychotic possessiveness. The psychological contrast between parenthood and childlessness takes the position that life without offspring is an intolerable state. Perhaps it's like any other form of prohibition: if the country went baby-dry, would people go to the equivalent of infant speakeasies?

Filmed in Denmark by expert English tech talent, Z.P.G. has a boring minimalist-future look with blank public spaces and windowless private rooms. Peter Hajmark and Harry Lange's art designs take all the joy out of Danish architecture and furniture. Miniature specialist Derek Meddings provides an opening of skyscrapers in the smog, but unconvincing filming techniques undoes his effort: it plays like an Ed Wood- directed first scene for Blade Runner. A floating surveillance and public-address droid puffs smoke and wiggles across the sky. Illegal families are asphyxiated under tent-like killing domes dropped right where they're caught. Again, uninteresting photography and direction give the movie a 'blah' feel; all the exteriors are obscured by ugly, grainy fog.

Z.P.G. has some good ideas. "Legal" babies are branded with invisible letters reading "B E" (Before Edict). But other poorly explained details drain away much of the film's credibility. How Carol thinks she can get away with passing her real baby for a doll becomes ludicrous, especially when it cries in public. Their escape also seems rather foolish, especially when fleeing the city is no more complicated than paddling a rubber raft through a sewer. An odd sewer, too, considering that it looks as if people have been flushing wrecked cars down their toilets.

(spoiler) George Lucas was wise to conclude his THX 1138 just as Robert Duvall reached the outside world, as going further would force the film to explain what lies beyond his underground city. Z.P.G. shows the little family paddling on the free ocean, which incidentally looks mighty clean and clear in comparison to that stuffy dome. They alight without provisions or shelter on a possibly radioactive island, where a placard announces that Polaris missiles were junked in a 1978 peace accord. The unsatisfactory freeze-frame ending is really no ending at all, as the screenwriters haven't solved the basic problems of their story. We don't even see Russ and Carol's reaction to their new home.

In looking for positive things to say about Z.P.G., we observe that it at least makes a sincere effort to be serious about its subject, unlike the later, terrible Logan's Run. Look online and one will find Z.P.G. being used in cautionary pro-Life arguments, its premise compared to severe population control methods already enacted in China. The presumed mass birth control of Z.P.G. may run counter our religious beliefs, but what else can we do to ensure the survival of mankind?  2


Legend Films' DVD of Z.P.G. is a good enhanced transfer of this nearly forgotten Sci-Fi effort. Color is acceptable, although much of the film has an unattractive look. The audio is clear. No trailer has been provided. The movie has so many unique aspects, from its interesting cast to its production in Denmark, that it is a shame its makers haven't been offered the opportunity of a commentary. These people deserve credit: they went to Denmark to make a Science Fiction film, and came up with something better than Reptilicus!


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Z.P.G. rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 1, 2008

Footnotes:

1. The giant dome was presumably constructed to control the atmosphere, but the air inside is still smoggy and dangerous? I don't get it.
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2. Malthus aside, mankind may be inherently incapable of controlling its own population. The instinct to be fruitful and multiply is in our DNA as well as our faiths.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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