Very much a product of the same anxious zeitgeist that generated Silent Running and Soylent Green (both released in 1972), as well as other cautionary tales with environmental themes, this downbeat and sl0w-moving sci-fi saga concerns a dystopian future in which man has so completely overrun the earth that the planet’s governments establish a 30-year ban on childbirth. Concurrently, pollution has become so horrific that entire cities are shrouded 24/7 with suffocating smog, and it’s become impossible to grow organic materials, so neither animals nor plants exist. The story’s protagonists, Carol McNeil (Geraldine Chaplin) and her husband Russ (Oliver Reed), work in a museum, where they perform re-creations of domestic scenes from the 20th century inside living dioramas. While some couples in this ugly future society have purchased the only legal substitutes for children—lifelike robot babies—the McNeils want more, even though the penalty for childbirth is death. At Carol’s desperate urging, Russ agrees to start a family. Once Carol becomes pregnant, Russ fabricates a marital separation as a cover story before hiding Carol in an underground bunker until she delivers her baby.
The plot twists that follow, depicting the McNeils’ efforts to hide their secret from curious neighbors and prying government operatives, are fairly clever even though a lot of what happens in Z.P.G. (abbreviated from the government policy of Zero Population Growth) is logically dubious. Made in the UK and written by Frank De Felitta and Max Ehrlich (who also wrote the strange 1974 George C. Scott drama The Savage Is Loose), Z.P.G. features imaginative gadgets (such as the clear masks that citizens must wear while walking around smog-choked streets) and unnerving manifestations of totalitarianism (notably a high-tech torture chamber that feels like a precursor for a similar chamber in the 1976 sci-fi classic Logan’s Run). Unfortunately, neither the dramaturgy nor the performances rise to the level of the concepts. Chaplin’s acting is fidgety but icy, and Reed plays so many of his scenes with a stone face that he barely seems present, much less emotionally involved. Combined with long stretches of repetitive scenes, the inert acting makes the first hour of Z.P.G. very slow going. And while things pick up somewhat in the second half, when characters played by Diane Cliento and Don Gordon emerge as unlikely villains, the movie runs off the rails again during the ludicrous climax.