Slick Social Thriller Humane Never Grows Beyond its Premise

Movies Reviews Caitlin Cronenberg
Slick Social Thriller Humane Never Grows Beyond its Premise

Dystopian horror and eco-horror are both riding a wave of interest that’s been churning for at least the last 10 years, and it’s easy to see why. Beyond the fact that films like The Purge have proven financially successful, there’s a sense that we’re perched on the brink of living in one of these dark worlds at any given moment, and horror that promises to send us over the edge, at least for a couple of hours, feels both urgent and unsettling.

The best of these films, the ones that live in our heads after the credits have rolled, are the ones that take a particular high-concept hook and then grow. The Purge movies are at their best when they luxuriate in the over-the-top violence suggested by the worldbuilding, and on the eco-horror front, films like Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth and Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia achieve a state of almost mystical terror, diving headlong into the hallucinogenic green noise of the rebelling natural world. No matter the premise, there’s always a sense of expansion in the best of these films, while other, more forgettable entries stagnate.

Humane, the new dystopian horror film from writer Michael Sparaga and director Caitlin Cronenberg (yes, as in David and Brandon Cronenberg), certainly starts with the potential for greatness, and the good news is that it never lets go of the sense that we’re in capable, steady hands. Sadly, that sense of steadiness and basic filmmaking competence never takes Humane beyond its hook, leaving us with a social thriller that, despite flashes of brutal brilliance, never feels like it’s reaching for anything more.

In the world of Humane, an unnamed ecological catastrophe has crippled the Earth, leaving water supplies dwindling and ultraviolet rays from the sun coming through with such force that everyone carries special umbrellas for protection. Resources are dwindling, which means the governments of the world have made a drastic choice: Reduce their populations by 20% to allow Earth to heal, and save human civilization in the long run. 

It’s a killer concept, to be sure, and it gets better when we meet the focus of the film: The York family, headed by patriarch Charles (Peter Gallagher), a retired newscaster who has decided it’s his civic duty to set a good example and enlist for the euthanasia procedure. Hoping to do things his way one last time, Charles gathers his children—professor and pundit Jared (Jay Baruchel), pharmaceutical titan Rachel (Emily Hampshire), aspiring actress Ashley (Alanna Bale), and recovering addict and pianist Noah (Sebastian Chacon)—to say goodbye over dinner at his gorgeous, sprawling home. 

Naturally, the York children argue against the procedure, often saying the quiet part loud and assuring Charles that people like them (wealthy, white, influential) don’t need to bother with the population control measures. But Charles is dead set (pun intended), and soon a government contractor tech named Bob (Enrico Colantoni) is at the door to administer the euthanasia drugs and collect the bodies of Charles and his wife, chef and restaurateur Dawn (Uni Park). It’s all very clean and calm, but things start to go haywire when Dawn disappears, leaving Bob and his crew to deliver a sinister ultimatum: One of the York children has to take their stepmother’s place. If they don’t choose among themselves, Bob will choose for them.

This little pivot allows Sparaga and Cronenberg to play with their premise on a more intimate level, letting the York children play Succession with actual knives instead of verbal ones. Meanwhile, Rachel’s daughter Mia (Sirena Gulamgaus) sits outside with Bob, debating the merits of what he’s doing and, by extension, what humanity is doing to itself. It’s a smart way to explore the space, and when it’s working well, it gives us meaty ideas to chew over in between bouts of violence. We learn, for example, that whatever problem led to these drastic measures started in Asia, creating a COVID-esque environment of racism. We also learn that Charles’ years as a newsman have made him, against all odds, eager to go out as a man of principle, not just a talking head. Then there’s Bob himself, a working class guy who might think he’s doing his duty or might just like sticking it to a wealthy family. Or maybe it’s both. 

These are smart additions to the worldbuilding, and Sparaga’s script never beats us over the head with exposition. It all comes in clever drips, interspersed with bright splashes of blood, which allows Cronenberg to play with tension in some very satisfying ways. On a conceptual level, pretty much everything about this works, and as a first-time feature director, Cronenberg executes with confidence and wit, delivering a world that’s hauntingly similar to the one we’re in now—thus achieving the ultimate goal of this kind of conceptual horror. 

But this achievement is, if not marred, then at least somewhat overshadowed by Humane‘s failure to push things any further than the concept suggests. When the York children get down to business and actually start arguing—physically and verbally—over who deserves to die, Humane hits all the expected beats, ranging from darkly comic to attempts at real heart, but aside from the tension of who’s going to lose the fight, nothing fresh emerges, and occasional narrative efforts to throw a monkey wrench into the battle fizzle as quickly as they appear. The same is true of the film’s depiction of Bob’s relationship to the Yorks. Here, we get tantalizing traces of something deeper—as Bob waxes poetic about his work and gives the requisite thrashing of the privileged in a world where the have-nots are the ones usually dying—but again the film never quite pushes into new, more compelling territory. It all feels very surface-level, the kind of talking points you’d hear around a slightly contentious family dinner table, and it holds Humane back. 

Still, there’s plenty to enjoy in Humane, beginning with the wit of Cronenberg’s direction and continuing through to the cast, led by wonderful lead performances from Baruchel, Hampshire and, in particular, Colantoni. The York children are all capable, all showing us different sides of an escalating fight for their lives, but it’s Colantoni who steals the movie, so much so that you’ll wish the whole film just followed him around and tracked the ups and downs of his unusual job. That sense of wishing the film went somewhere else is the overriding feeling that dominates Humane. It’s solid, and at its best it’s an impishly entertaining little thriller. But all the talent in the world can’t overcome the feeling that there is more here to be mined, if only Humane had dug just a little deeper.

Directors: Caitlin Cronenberg
Writers: Michael Sparaga
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Emily Hampshire, Sebastian Chacon, Alanna Bale, Sirena Gulamgaus, Uni Park, Enrico Colantoni, Peter Gallagher
Release date: April 26, 2024

Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.

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