Credit: Steve Wilkie/IFC Films
by Morris Yang Featured Film Genre Views

Humane — Caitlin Cronenberg

April 26, 2024

Scarcity, meet self-interest: with the rising threat of ecological collapse and the persistent wherewithal to do little about it, dystopian scenarios have increasingly sought the biological body as vessel for commodification and political commentary. This means, by corollary, that euthanasia, eugenics, or some form of population control becomes the mainstay of apocalyptic consciousness, and not without good reason. The temporary legalization of all crime in the Purge series offers a window into our world’s sanctioning of various transgressions on a seemingly permanent basis, while the state’s promotion of euthanasia for the infirm and elderly in Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75 likewise reveals society’s painful quandary between human freedom and indifferent utilitarianism. It’s not a stretch, then, to entertain the nightmare of a world when population overgrowth has become so unmanageable — and resources so depleted — that said promotion inches closer toward mandate.

Such is the premise of Caitlin Cronenberg’s debut, Humane, and while the film’s ideas are indeed plausible, little of its scenario ventures beyond cheap and populist rage-bait. Opening news flashes suggest a parallel between the ostensibly failed climate accords and the project of civilizational weight loss, with individual nation-states left to achieve their respective quotas (the global commitment is 20% of the world’s population). The incentives, thus far, haven’t quite been outweighed by the dissenters: a quarter million in U.S. greenback per body has prompted the old, the sick, and the self-sacrificing to gift their lives away in exchange for their loved ones’ financial security. It’s only when talk emerges of a draft to be potentially enacted against this “war” in which “humanity is the opposing side” — a decent jab at liberalspeak — that panic properly ensues, this time within the hearty confines of the upper-middle class. Charles York (Peter Gallagher), retired newscaster, assembles his estranged children to a dinner where he discloses his intention to sign up, with the noble reason that his contribution will, in all likelihood, save his kin from selection.

These kin are a diverse bunch, which Cronenberg keenly utilizes as mouthpieces for the excesses of bourgeois narcissism. Jared (Jay Baruchel), consultant and right-wing bootlicker, professes public support for the draft; Rachel (Emily Hampshire), with a clinical bob cut to match her sociopathy, manages mischief at her Big Pharma company; Noah (Sebastian Chacon) and Ashley (Alanna Bale), their less successful counterparts, are a recovering addict and D-list commercial actress respectively who sit at the table with sunken eyes and possibly glowering shame. Due to a slip-up, the group finds that their patriarch’s death isn’t enough, and that the collectors — from the Department of Citizen Strategy, led by a chirpy Bob (Enrico Colatoni) — require one more body bag for the night. Humane, fancying little of the totalitarian despotism displayed by faceless death-squad troops, injects Bob and co. with an avaricious streak insofar as they are paid by the body. What better than pitting man against man in a war against the 99%?

Sadly, the bulk of Cronenberg’s well-intentioned if anodyne effort falls flat in its attempts to make sense of the ideological carnage that has lent plausibility to its dystopian scenario in the first place. With the four siblings locked in their late father’s manor, fighting tooth and nail over who gets to live, the odds quickly narrow for Noah, the sole adoptee and consequently less-regarded one. Simultaneously, the dim hallways and twisting camerawork segue into Purge-like territory, foregrounding the savage but formulaic violence onscreen against the afterthought of state-sanctioned mass murder. It doesn’t quite help that much of Humane’s screenplay could have just as easily been cribbed from parody: a bloodied Jared insists that his decision to attack Noah wasn’t motivated by “color” or “white privilege,” while the mere juxtaposition of three extremely distinct and extremely unlikeable character tropes reeks of desperation in the time of narrative impotence. The title also gives it away, with Humane ending on a weakly triumphant note that’s neither convincing nor quite deserved. For closeted liberals masquerading as casual pessimists, it’s the perfect Friday night out.

DIRECTOR: Caitlin Cronenberg;  CAST: Jay Baruchel, Emily Hampshire, Peter Gallagher, Enrico Colantoni;  DISTRIBUTOR: IFC Films;  IN THEATERS: April 26;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 33 min.