‘Humane’ Review: Caitlin Cronenberg Smashes Two Genres Together In Underbaked Eco-Horror

It’s often unfair to compare a director’s child with their parent’s work. Outsized expectations and a tendency to reduce every narrative and aesthetic choice to a type of juxtaposition often flattens the discourse surrounding a particular voice. Sofia Coppola’s work is so radically different from her father’s, for example, that comparison would be meaningless. But it’s also hard to review a film that so obviously bears the hallmarks of a parent’s work in a bubble. Brandon Cronenberg was obviously influenced by his father, particularly on his first film “Antiviral.”

If that film ratcheted up its body horror aesthetic and satire as a way of both paying homage and differentiating from father David Cronenberg’s work, Caitlin Cronenberg zags a bit more in her feature debut “Humane.” It’s less gross-out her brother Brandon’s work, and more in-line with her father’s late career turn towards the horrors that systems (governments, families, etc.), rather than bodies, inflict on each other.

READ MORE: ‘Humane’ Trailer: Caitlin Cronenberg’s Dystopian Debut Hits Select Theaters On April 26, Premieres On Shudder In July

If “Humane” doesn’t have the same density of, say, “Cosmopolis,” it still showcases a confident director who excels at world-building but not as much, perhaps, on fleshing out fully-rounded characters. It imagines a future where climate change has ravaged the world and, in response, countries have come together under the so-called ‘Athens Accords’ to reduce the world’s population. Thus, each country is tasked with a 20% reduction. Adopting the rhetoric of war — including the euphemism of ‘enlisting’ instead of euthanizing — Canada has nevertheless fallen behind at the start of the film. 

Circled around a dinner party set up by Peter Gallagher’s patriarch Charles York, the film adopts the tone (and rhythms) of a chamber piece, rarely leaving the ornate mansion where the York’s live. Charles, and his second wife Dawn (Uni Park) have invited Charles’s 4 children — Jay Baruchel’s MAGA-coded Jared, Emily Hampshire’s CEO Rachel, Sebastian Chacon’s recovering addict (and, importantly, adopted) Noah, and Alanna Bale’s struggling actress Ashley — together for a lavish dinner. Quickly, Charles tells his children that he and Dawn have ‘enlisted’ in the country’s reduction program. While they don’t need the $250,000 that the government promises anyone who will enlist, Charles feels like the decision will, in some way, redeem him for failing to be a better father. 

Yet right before the procedure, Dawn gets cold feet, running away and leaving Charles to ‘enlist’ alone. Unfortunately, for the rest of the York family, DOCS (Department of Citizen Strategy) agents, like Bob (Enrico Colantoni), are paid per cadaver. With the strength of a SWAT team behind him, he tells the siblings that they have two hours to decide which one of them is going to ‘enlist’ to take Dawn’s place. 

From there, the film unfortunately whips between tones and genres, as siblings bicker about who is the more deserving to live before grabbing knives and, of course, turning on each other. No points if you guessed that the adopted addict Noah is the first name to be tossed up for sacrifice.

Even if the film descends into awful rich people trying to kill each other, Cronenberg and writer/producer Michael Sparaga have a fascinating concept at the film’s core. It’s one that exacerbates the differences between the have and have-nots. The only people ‘enlisting’ are those who need the money for their families or, as Jared notes, undocumented immigrants whose families are promised a path to citizenship afterwards. 

These moments, however obvious in their political lines, are the most interesting in a film that tries to split the difference between parable and horror, dedicating half of the film to each section. They lay bare class and racial differences in a world that only cares about how many people they can convince to die.  But, the film isn’t as concerned with building out this imagined future as it is with pitying these four (frankly) terrible people against each other for our (and Bob’s) amusement.

Each sibling is then reduced to an archetype rather than an actual person. Jared is a man-child who thinks his power and connections can get him out of anything, Rachel is emotionless and hollow, Ashley is a failed creative, and Noah is the lone voice of reason. It’s high-concept but, unfortunately, low execution.

Still, Cronenberg’s directorial choices suggest an ability to marry genre and elevated concepts, if only with a stronger script. When the film firmly goes off the rails in the second act, she still showcases an ability to play up tension as the four children hunt each other in the expansive mansion. In isolation, the bifurcation works but, taken together, it suggests an underbaked concept that was never fully realized and, alternatively, a slasher that never makes its characters feel human. [C]

IFC Films will release “Humane” in limited release starting April 26.