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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Z.P.G.

Early 1972 was off to a gloomy start for sci-fi movies. Paramount distributed an indie production titled, Z.P.G., (standing for Zero Population Growth). It is a grim dystopia tale, shot mostly in Copenhagen with a supporting cast of danish actors and actresses. In a smoggy future, the one-world government decrees that no one shall have a baby for 30 years. ZPG stars Oliver Reed and Geraldine Chaplin as the couple who defy the law and have a baby. Don Gordon and Diane Cilento co-star as the baby-obsessed creepy neighbors. In many ways, ZPG reads like an update on Orwell's 1984.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The president of the world council announces a new edict. To reduce the world's overpopulation, there can be no more babies born for 30 years. Fast forward eight years. People wearing clear face masks, walk the streets amid very thick smog. One woman shouts "Baby! Baby!" A mob forms around a woman and young son. She pleads that he IS eight years old, just small for his size. The police arrive, but the son does have the "BE" (Before Edict) ultraviolet tattoo on his forehead. Russ and Carol work in a museum. Mostly, they are 1971 re-enactors who put on mini-plays of 70s life (bland dinner parties with wife swapping intrigue) for museum audiences. Russ and Carol get in line for a robo-child. (intended to channel people's parental instincts). Carol is disgusted, so they leave. Another woman and toddler are discovered by the crowd. Clearly criminals, the authorities drop the dome of death on them, and paint it red. (they suffocate inside in a dozen hours or so). Carol very much wants a real baby. After one night of marital relations, she goes to stand by the Abort-o-matic in her bathroom, but stands far aside while it hums and irradiates. Fast forward four months. She is starting to show. To avoid discovery, Russ fixes up a former bomb shelter under their home. He will say she ran away and left him. Carol will have to live down there, deliver down there, and perhaps stay hidden with the baby for 22 more years. Fast forward another four months. Carol is having contractions prematurely. She can't get a doctor, so Russ goes to the library to learn what he can about delivering babies. He searches for "Premonstratensian" art, ( a medieval monastic style) then lets his search "accidentally" wander to pre-mature births. He gets only a glimpse before he is trapped in his chair and whisked off to a painful interrogation chamber. Accused of criminal information-seeking, he says it was a mis-key and thought it was disgusting. The interrogators buy this and let him go. Carol gives birth. Later, the boy runs a fever. She sneaks him out to an old pediatrician in a nursing home. The boy will be fine, but Carol's neighbor Edna discovers that she has a baby. Edna and George don't squeal on them because they want a real baby too. Russ and Carol have no choice but to agree to share him. Over time, the sharing becomes uneven. Edna and George hog Jeffrey. Russ hatches a plan. He and Carol dig a tunnel from their bomb shelter, to a particular spot under the street. After a showdown. Edna and George squeal. The authorities take Carol, Russ and little Jeffrey out into the street and drop the dome of death on them. Edna and George are massively conflicted, since this dooms "their" Jeffrey too. But too late. The dome is painted red and the three inside left to suffocate. However, Russ has tools in his boots. He cuts the zip ties and digs through the pavement. The three escape through their tunnel to another cavern. Via rubber raft, Russ paddles through big drain tunnels, past stacks of old junk cars, finally out to sea and clear blue skies. They land on a beach with a plaque noting that the site was a dump for Polaris missiles, buried in the interest of peace. They walk ashore anyhow. Freeze frame. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
For a low-budget production, the film has a surprisingly effective mood. There is also a VERY 70s look and feel to the fashions. Sideburns, bellbottoms and colorful swirly prints! -- a nostalgia amusement for viewers who lived through the times.

Cultural Connection
By the early 70s, nuclear doom had to share the nightmare stage with environmental doom. ZPG adds a variant: overpopulation doom. The idea that population growth would eventually outstrip food production -- causing mass famine and death -- goes back to Thomas Malthus in the late 1700s. The industrial revolution of the early 1800s and subsequent industrialization of agriculture in the mid-1800s (all unforeseen by Malthus) undermined the Malthusian predictions. Doom didn't come like he said. But, Malthusian doom never went away completely. It resurfaced from time to time, but did not garner much attention. Doom from overpopulation became much more mainstream after the publication of Paul Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb" in 1968. Ehrlich wrote that by the mid-70s, mass famine and death were likely. A culture already accustomed to impending (nuclear) doom was FAR more receptive and ready to be afraid of something else.
Footnote: Doom did not arrive for Ehrlich any better than it had for Malthus. Subsequent editions of his book revised in the 80s and 90s, had the doom dates to remain roughly 10 years or so in the future.

Notes
Post-Malthus -- The premise for ZPG is that the world went through a Malthusian crisis. Pollution killed off thousands of people, as well as the plants and animals and made most of the earth (the cities, at least) thick with noxious smog. The only food was synthetic and there wasn't enough of that to go around. ZPG's dystopia is the post-malthusian world in which food is strictly rationed and babies are illegal.

Prequel to Silent Running -- Drawing from the same well of anxiety, ZPG inadvertently makes a great prequel to Silent Running. The earth has no plants or animals, food is synthetic, etc. It's not hard to make the connections. As the earth was declining, samples of flora and fauna were sent into space for safe keeping. The hope was that earth might get cleaned up and the plants and animals returned. Instead, a polluted world was accepted as the new normal. There might have been some technological breakthrough that made synthetic food more abundant. No more need for nature. Jettison the domes and come home to other jobs.

Bad Baby -- An interesting subtext in ZPG is the robot-children, intended to occupy the population's parental instincts. The robo-kids are intentionally crude and unlovable. They're actually rather creepy, actually. This adds extra irony to Edna being half-hypnotized by her therapist to feel love and care for her robo-son.

Lost Baby Love -- Something that subtly dates ZPG to feel somewhat old fashioned, is the overwhelming desire the characters have for bearing (real) children. Roe v. Wade is still a year away. Since ZPG, four more decades of feminism told women they don't need to be mothers. Four decades of industrialized abortion have reduced pregnancy and unborn babies to "unviable tissue." All this has trivialized babies down to a lifestyle option, like taking up golf or getting a dog. You do, you don't, no big deal. Within that context of the "modern" ambivalence to babies, the story's obsessive passion for babies seems oddly melodramatic.

The Glutton Show -- One curious scene in ZPG depicts a movie theater in which viewers watch footage of lavish picnics or sumptuous holiday feasts (from the 60s). Overlaying the visuals is a bedding track of pig snorts and grunting. The female narrator intones socialist criticisms about people eating their fill while half of the world was still hungry, etc. etc. Shame on them. There is a parallel scene in 1984 in which a movie audience is whipped up to hate Goldstein. They shout angry epithets at the screen. In ZPG, the audience is less ideologically pure. The viewers are not so much angry or disgusted with the filmed feasts, as they seem entranced or envious. State propaganda was becoming food porn.

Grim Thunderbirds -- If the flying announcement orb and the hover jet that brings the dome of death reminded viewers of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's work, they would be right. Special effects man, Derek Meddings, did the model work for ZPG. He also did special effects work for the Anderson's earlier works, such as: Stingray, Fireball XL-5, and Thunderbirds.

Bottom line? ZPG is an obscure indie sci-fi that is better than it's low budget might suggest. Granted, the acting is hit-or-miss. Sometimes they're oddly wooden. Other times they believable. The "action" is mild by modern tastes. (nothing explodes) The mood and atmosphere are effective. Some of the cinematography shows some artistic flair. The story is rich enough in layers of commentary with an Orwellian spin, that it rises above being a mere preachy environmental rant. ZPG is worth checking out. It would make a great first film in a double feature with Silent Running.

2 comments:

Randall Landers said...

You tied this is with SILENT RUNNINGS, and that's perfectly fair. But I also like to think of it as tied in to SOYLENT GREEN, especially with the synthetic food aspect. All three are disturbing views of the future, one that we can work to avoid.

Nightowl said...

Randall. Good point. Since I haven't gotten to Soylent Green yet, I didn't mention it. But, you're quite right. The three would make a good (if grim) triple feature.