*½/**** Image A- Sound B+
starring Oliver Reed, Geraldine Chaplin, Don Gordon, Diane Cilento
screenplay by Max Ehrlich and Frank De Felitta
directed by Michael Campus
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover The plot of Z.P.G. (stands for "Zero Population Growth") inevitably recalls that other '70s overpopulation romp, Soylent Green. True to disaster-dystopian form, both films deal with the perils of social overmanagement in facing the food shortages and overcrowding of the then-topical population bomb. But where Soylent Green is acid, balls-out, and harmonious in its venting of incoherent grievances, Z.P.G. is too serious and lackadaisical to impress as anything other than a standard catalogue title. It seems aware of the conventions of social science-fiction but has no real use for them; stumbling through the plot like its anaesthetized heroine, it doesn't so much illustrate points as have points illustrated for it through genre memory. One doesn't expect lucid analysis from apocalyptic potboilers--I still have no idea what was achieved by Soylent Green's gleefully masochistic cynicism--but one does expect an interest in the fear that society is sliding off the rails and we're all gonna die. Alas, director Michael Campus is so incapable of wringing the slightest interest out of his premise that the way his world ends is not with a bang, but with a shrug.
You know you're in for hard times when the picture opens with a bunch of people standing around, watching an announcement: the scientists have failed, apparently, and now there is a ban on humankind reproducing in any sense. It would, of course, have been nice if the camera weren't slammed in the face of a handful of individuals representing a crowd the production couldn't afford, as Campus isn't director enough to evoke what isn't there. This sets the tone for the rest, which hopes you'll accept sketchy stand-ins for mise-en-scène and plotting alike. Geraldine Chaplin is the poor soul asked to carry this thing: as wannabe momma Carol McNeil, she registers about two pained expressions in her quest to show her character's snittiness. Husband Russ does a little bit better by dint of being played by Oliver Reed, though the actor is hamstrung by not only the role (he mostly looks on in horrified sympathy) but also direction that reins in his wildness. Ultimately, both actors are prevented from breathing life into their character's will to conceive against society's rules.
Frank De Felitta and Max Ehrlich have countered Campus by providing a script of predictable confusion. We're supposed to take it as a terrible intrusion on human rights that people are not allowed to procreate, but if the option is the end of the species, who in their right mind would complain? A more astute film would have hinged on the ambiguity of a genuine public emergency and the state's use of it to quell unrest, or the notion of working out the details of maintaining sanity in a no-win situation. Here, the idea is too vague to be of any real concern. Carol's desperation for a child is more or less a foregone conclusion, while subplots from the oppression of Big Brother to the machinations of jealous neighbours are similarly accepted on faith. Most writers would spike the ball on the urgency of their subject--Ehrlich and De Felitta opt instead to achieve a benumbed alarmism. They're hysterical about everything yet can't muster the passion to care. It's taken for granted that people want kids and taken for granted that the state would do... something, such that connections aren't made beyond clichés and specious logic.
I suppose Soylent Green didn't make a whole lot of sense either, but it was emotionally logical, coming out of the pain of the '60s and mating liberal cynicism with conservative doomsaying. It captured the mood of the times and the sense of failure and disgust--not enough to be smart about it, but enough to be potent and snappy and full of zesty beans. Where Soylent Green knocked itself out to draw blood, Campus never strains himself. He can't be faulted for having no money, but he can be faulted for pretending otherwise, hoping you won't notice that his tiny crowds aren't massive and his shabby sets aren't impressive. He's never suggestive of bigger things--that would require nuance. And just as he can't suggest physical reality, neither can he suggest cause-and-effect. Big Brother is never more than silly: Russ investigating the possibility of natural birth results in an automated interrogation so ham-fisted--and so easily evaded--that totalitarianism may as well be Freedonia under Rufus T. Firefly. If the film wanted anything more than it does, that might have been camp heaven--but it doesn't, and isn't, and hasn't got a point.
There's not much to do besides tick off the missed opportunities. The potentially interesting complication of child-starved neighbours looking for a piece of the action is just soap opera with a dash of forced irony: Ross Hunter produces "The Twilight Zone". And you will slap your head repeatedly at having to watch the same grey, underdesigned, lazily-shot exteriors when the film cries out for a metaphor that actually sticks. Aside from the risible detail of many of the men sporting Rod Steiger medallions (how this movie could have used Steiger and a bad florid speech or two), there isn't a felicitous touch in the whole thing--unless you count the comedy of Chaplin staring off into space, trying to convey ineffable suffering and only managing to inflict it. Placed against Charlton Heston and his flamboyant contempt, there's no doubting: Z.P.G. is feeble. It's feeble!!!
Legend gives the Paramount title a bare-bones treatment on DVD. The 1.78:1, anamorphic image is decidedly not-bad, with a decently vivid lustre wasted on a weak palette. The Dolby 2.0 sound is perhaps strictly functional, but strong and smooth all the same. No extras, not even a trailer.
96 minutes; PG; 1.78:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 2.0 (Mono); CC; DVD-9; Region One; Legend