Welcome to a polluted future-world where making babies is outlawed and the punishment is a slow death.
Z.P.G. was one of the dystopian sci-fi films depicting the damaged and destroyed planet Earth from the early 1970s. This boom of societal or worldwide disaster films was popular, and reactionary, to the news of the day that resources were dwindling in a world where the population was growing at an exponential rate.
The trailer shows a polluted, overpopulated future where an announcement is made that having children is forbidden. Lifelike child dolls are provided to couples instead, but one lady still wants to have a child. So much so that she goes out of her way to get pregnant even risking death. Apparently, another in line of early 70s movies that caution the destruction of the planet on which we live.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
In the not-too distant future, the world is a smoggy, overpopulated mess. Citizens must wear respirators outside to survive. In order to ensure the survival of the planet, the World Federation Council has released an edict that for the next 30 years women are forbidden from having children, under the punishment of death. Babies that have been born prior to the Edict get an ultraviolet tattoo on their foreheads that says “B.E.,” for “Before Edict.”
Eight years after the Edict, Carol and Russ McNeil (Geraldine Chaplin & Oliver Reed) are visiting Babyland, a popular store that sells synthetic infant and toddler dolls that supposedly perform as a real child would. As they reach the head of the line, which some people wait in for days, Carol experiences pangs of regret and asks Russ to leave. They visit a restaurant, where people are eating paste from tubes, and drinking strange colored fluids. They enjoy reading a menu of the past, imagining the taste of many wonderful dishes.
Carol and Russ see a potential transgressor on the smoggy street. A woman screams, “Baby! Baby!” at another lady so the enforcers will arrive. The mother claims the child is just small for his age, and that he’s actually 8. When they scan the child’s forehead they see he has the tattoo, B.E. and leave her be. They then head off to their jobs at the State Museum. The museum contains stuffed versions of extinct animals, like cats and squirrels, as well as dioramas of how gas pumps and cars of the 1970s worked. The McNeils live in a reproduction of a 1970s house, and “perform” the daily rituals for the museum guests, like dinner parties and friendly drama with other neighbors, the Bordens, George and Edna (Don Gordon & Diane Cilento). In exchange for being docents, they enjoy the ability to live better than many others, in a larger and more private space.
Carol realizes one evening that she really wants a baby and calls her “doctor” to talk about it. He reminds her it’s illegal and spouts some state related propaganda, telling her she can’t. The next day she visits Twilight City, a “retirement home” for the elder citizens. She visits with the doctor that birthed her, the closest person she has to am actual father. She makes love with Russ later, and admits that she’d like to have a child. Russ tells her to “take care of it,” but Carol only pretends to use the state sponsored abortion machine in the bathroom. Edna has received a Babyland doll, but has difficulty bonding with the toy-like toddler.
Later, Russ surprises Carol with a pack of real vegetables, not some paste. It’s noticed by some other citizen, stolen, and destroyed in a riot of people clamoring for real food. Christmas arrives and Carol starts to feel sappy about the fake tree. Russ finds her a real, yet small, tree at great risk to their freedom. He compares it to her having the baby. They decide that for her protection she must move into the Civil Defense Bunker under the house while pregnant. These replica homes may actually be artifacts from the past, as the signage about air raids appears ancient.
Carol becomes depressed at realizing the child will never have more than the small room under their house. Once she gives birth, she pretends the baby is a fake doll and visits her elder doctor again, who checks to make sure the child is healthy. Upon returning Edna discovers the McNeil’s secret. She and George blackmail the parents to share time with the infant, fulfilling their desire for a real baby as well. She and Russ beginning planning something under the house by tunneling around the basement.
When Carol finally refuses to give the Bordens the baby outright, George screams for the authorities. Russ, Carol, and the baby are covered in a tented extermination chamber, where transgressors are suffocated over 12 hours. Knowing the particular area they’d be remanded to, they dig their way under the chamber, into the basement and onto the old sewers, sailing a raft out to the ocean. The next day is sunny and clear as they land on the shores of another land, where they can live freely. The camera drifts over the landscape showing the signage indicating that the area is potentially radioactive from buried nuclear warheads from 1978.
“Because it has been agreed by the nations of the world that the earth can no longer sustain a continuously increasing population, as of today, the 1st of January, we join with all other nations of the world in the following edict: Childbearing is herewith forbidden.” – The President
History in the Making
Z.P.G. which stands for Zero Population Growth, was not the first science-fiction film to be based on a book. But it was the first film to be based on a non-fiction book, something that science-fiction has never done, before or since. It was inspired by the non-fiction book “The Population Bomb” by Professor Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife Anne, which talked about the “explosion” of the world population and predicted famine, overcrowding, and other societal problems as the Earth’s population grew unchecked. It served as a wake-up call for many, and fell in step with others that were discovering the calling of conservationism, environmentalism, and looking to “save the world.”
The film was part of the early 70s protest and environmental film movement. Several of these dystopian films have already been explored on Sci-Fi Saturdays including The Andromeda Strain and The Omega Man (world contagion), THX 1138 (societal & population control), and Silent Running (decimation of the environment). And much like Silent Running, Z.P.G. does not mince words about its motives. It’s meant to be shocking and cause the audience to think about current problems, and how they will factor on the future.
Z.P.G. takes previous dystopian films and cranks up the level of dirt, grime, and oppression. Where Fahrenheit 451 and THX 1138 depict a controlling governmental body, Z.P.G. goes even further. It’s bold in its depiction of punishment to the populace for circumventing the rules and regulations of the society. Perpetrators are instantly assessed, and sentenced to death bu suffocation domes, where they die, inhumanely, over 12 hours. Z.P.G. didn’t have the budget to depict this oppression in a larger way, but makes good use of the time it has to show the worst aspects of the future.
Restaurants are crowded. Respirators are needed to walk outside. Even the most common animal is extinct. The government monitors information searches. The world of the future is not a pleasant place. But the goal of Z.P.G. is not to present a better tomorrow, but to warn and scare the audience into making changes now, to prevent this possible, horrible future. The dystopian evils of the future presented here would soon become the norm for many future sci-fi films. Whether it’s the bleak, dirty, techno-future of Blade Runner or the bleak, dirty, post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max, films like Z.P.G. did their job by planting these seeds in the early 1970s. Modern films like Snowpiercer, or more closely related films like Children of Men, owe a lot to these early dystopian dramas.
Obviously, Z.P.G. had a few things to say about the state of the world. But it does so from a very certain point of view. The choices that the government and characters in the film make are seemingly rooted in the patriarchy of the 1970s. Before arriving on the edict of banning childbearing, there were several methods that were rejected including “selective euthanasia and mass sterilization.” While not overt, the sterilization most likely included only women, and not men, and of course it was the woman that was normally punished for having the baby. Euthanasia was most probably to have been practiced on the members of Twilight City, or perhaps a specific age would have been chosen as the cut-off point (as in Logan’s Run), or even a specific socio-economic class (like Soylent Green). The film also shows the responsibility of the prevention of pregnancy resting solely on the female, especially with the state provided abortion machine in the bathroom. That’s definitely not for Russ. After making love, when Carol admits that she has wanted a child, Russ tells her to “go and take care of it.” Just like that. There’s no discussion of birth control in the film. Men of this future bear no responsibility for the prevention of conception.
Later when Carol wants to get a real Christmas tree, Russ manages to find one somewhere and brings it home. When he returns with a living tree, not a synthetic one, Carol chides him that he “could’ve been killed.” The film seemingly equates having a child, and having a living tree as equal, but never is there discussion that there is a ban on real trees. Only that most plants and animals are extinct. It seems as if the filmmakers are trying to show Russ is bucking the system just as much as Carol, so the two of them can be secret revolutionaries. But it comes off as more than trite, where Carol is taking multiple risks with her body to bring a child into the world, and Russ is just digging up a tree. The men get the benefit of the doubt.
The Science in The Fiction
In the 50 plus years since “The Population Bomb” was written, the world population has more than doubled. Author Ehrlich estimated that there were 3.5 billion people in 1968. That number has reached 7.7 billion in 2019. To put that in perspective, scientists estimate that the first time one billion people lived on the planet was in 1804. It would take 123 years for 2 billion people to show up, and then only 33 years after that for the world to top 3 billion (c. 1960). Scientists now predict reaching 9 billion people by 2041. A tripling of the 1968 number in just 70 years! A true population explosion.
While the film never explicitly states the location, time frame, or world population, it tries to depict, as Ehrlich did in his book, the potential horrors of an increased population. The pollution associated with the future was something that the audiences of 1972 would certainly be able to relate to, especially in metropolitan areas like New York, and even more so Los Angeles. The film even features a Los Angeles newspaper, indicating that this dreary location is in fact the City of the Angels. One can assume that global environments mirror everything depicted in the film. Although Z.P.G. waffles on the density of the population and some of the pollution factors.
The restaurant is depicted as the densest location, with people standing around the tables, shoulder to shoulder. Yet the government maintains 1970-style housing for the museum, where the McNeils and the Bordens live. It seems unlikely that a society that would be able to make the decision to kill citizens that reproduce would be unable to prioritize the creation of larger locations for dining facilities or to house people. Additionally the depiction of the near-zero visibility outdoors, which requires citizens to wear respirators is terrifying, but breaks down upon close examination. No vehicles, save for one or two flying spacecraft are seen. No cars, or other producers of smog are depicted. How then does this toxic blanket remain in the city. For anyone that has lived in Los Angeles knows, a resilient wind can quickly blow the haze out over the ocean creating a beautiful Southern California day.
And if we want to get technical even further, since the film is called Z.P.G. that’s not really what the government has proclaimed. Technically, for 30 years, the world population will be shrinking without women being allowed to bear children. The theory of Zero Population Growth is just as it sounds: there will be a stagnation of growth in the world population. Every person born will be offset with a person that dies, thus creating a balance at the current population. Also known as a replacement level of fertility, the number of people on the planet never grows or shrinks as one baby is created for every person that dies. What the film is depicting is actually a negative population growth. Halting births for 30 years–and killing the families that choose to go against the edict–would reduce the population by billions.
The Final Frontier
The complexities of the interconnected systems that make up world population are probably too complex to be depicted in films such as this. Much like the book it was inspired by, Z.P.G. creates a tone of alarming awareness urging viewers that it may be too late to take action and to prepare for the worst. The film, and other sci-fi films of the time, presents dire predictions about the future of the planet due to the burgeoning awareness of the population.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.