Arguably, at the root of many of civilisation’s problems is that it works too well; the growing population puts a strain on the planet’s resources that manifest in pollution, war, and starvation. 1972's Z.P.G. presents the conflict between the attempt to regulate expanding human population and individual, emotional needs. The mania of the film’s women played by Geraldine Chaplin and Diane Cilento in their need to bear children is a little over the top but striking in a severely Communist society. A reliably smouldering performance from Oliver Reed is always captivating though it sometimes overwhelms the material.
“Z.P.G.” stands for “zero population growth” which the government attempts to effect by forbidding women from giving birth. An oppressive, omnipresent surveillance system in the library and on the streets is augmented by bounties on babies. After husband and wife Russ (Reed) and Carol (Chaplin) have sex, she goes to their bathroom where an automated home-abortion machine is installed. For all this, the obvious question would seem to be why the government doesn’t simply sterilise the population or just portions of it. The film avoids addressing this.
Carol finally decides she can no longer endure life without having a child so she skips the abortion machine one evening. She and her husband are forced to pretend separation while she hides in the basement for her pregnancy. Afterwards, caring for the child proves difficult when Russ can’t even access information about childcare in the library without law enforcement being alerted. But their worst trouble comes when their neighbours, George (Don Gordon) and Edna (Diane Cilento), learn their secret and want to share childcare duties and are willing to threaten Russ and Carol with exposure to get their way.
This is a nice way of showing how a police state can effect life on more than the obvious level of violence and rules. The psychological effects are complex and nasty in ways it can be hard to predict. And who wouldn’t start to go crazy with the creepy animatronic substitute babies women are encouraged to care for? Diane Cilento has two and her wild eyed, furtive manner certainly gains credence in light of the situation.
There’s a lot of nice, early 70s future style on display and it’s always great watching Oliver Reed just being Oliver Reed. He always seems ready to boil over somehow which compels me to watch him attentively at all times. Z.P.G. is available on The Criterion Channel as part of their new ‘70s Sci-Fi collection.