When I was about 11 years old I started transitioning from fantasy books to science fiction. As I’ve mentioned before, this was perhaps hilariously the fault of Piers Anthony who himself flipped back and forth between fantasy and scifi at a moments notice. But I was young and impressionable and for some reason the Elf Quest wasn’t cutting it anymore.
Late one night, long past when I should have been up, I began watching a movie on the local access network. I never caught the name of the movie and 20 years later can hardly remember the plot, save for one aspect: the main character is a woman in a dystopian future who fights the man. There is pregnancy involved. Fin.
And despite perhaps the bulk of the film going over my head, I believe that was the first major turning point for my current tastes in scifi. I like it dark, I like it grim, and I like it depicting a world on the brink of failing altogether.
Which is all to bring me to a somewhat unbelievable point: the movie? Appeared on Hulu today.
Equally surprising is how it made me feel while watching it; after the initial thrilled deja-vu I realized it wasn’t a good movie.
It is okay for what was likely a microscopic budget, but the acting is evenly poor (every minor security guard character over-acts with the passion of a person who believes that someone in Hollywood might see this movie and think, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull! What a fantastic actor Security Guard #5 is!”) and the motivation of humanity is totally non-existent. Compare and contrast with films like THX-1138 and Twelve Monkeys, where the powerlessness of individuals is all for that classic irony of a better world, and Birthright emerges as a particularly unsatisfying and unclear snapshot into what could easily just be an Eastern European country circa now.
Mostly disturbing to me was the flip of what made The Handmaid’s Tale (R.I.P., Natasha Richardson) a nicely complex little moral briar of post-modern feminism. Where Handmaid’s Offred is still a sexual being haunted by memories of her missing (and presumed dead) husband and her stolen daughter, Birthright’s Sarah is infantile and aimless, seeking only to become a mother despite repeated warnings that it is no longer “allowed” and “even if it were, it is no longer necessary.”
It is not just that she wants to have a child to raise, it is that Sarah wants to be impregnated with her own child and then raise it. Early in Birthright Sarah is offered the care of a 6 year-old child that has already been “educated and socialized” (I think we are to read: indoctrinated) by the comically evil Dr. Steiner. Sarah refuses it. Afterwards she is sent back to the giant laundry-factory¹ where she is scolded for “failing to meet the quota” because yes! Quotas and failing to meet them, that sounds dystopian!
In fact, as the movie progresses one wonders what Sarah would truly want if she were just allowed to breed – anything at all? I suppose that wanting to bear and raise a child is representative of wanting a freedom over one’s own body, but this greater analogy doesn’t pass along to Sarah at all; her single-minded desire to become pregnant takes on a cretinous quality that began to disgust me. Again, not because she wants a child, but because for her there is no bigger picture. There is no indignation, no subversive individuality, just the same pedantic bleating of “I want my own child!” over and over again.
Birthright‘s writer and director, Lynn Wegenka, makes a small effort to ameliorate Sarah’s infuriating passivity by having two older, more vocal women in her life, though neither of whom do much more than encourage Sarah’s desire. I mean, yes, it’s horrible that she can’t have children if she wants to, but maybe we can also discuss that everyone is living in what appears to be an abandoned, underground sanatorium where everyone has to dress the same and sleep on rusty cots and deviation results in death?
The strangest part is that of the few scenes I remember from my youth, one of them isn’t in the film. Unless I just completely missed it while watching it and spacing out — which is possible — but I remember a scene where Sarah sees a birthing center where fertile women are rendered brain-dead so they can produce babies without argument or interference. I can clearly envision it, women lined up on tables, bulging fecund abdomens draped in white sheets. Could it be that I completely imagined what would be the best scene of the movie? Or am I super-imposing a scene from another movie? The brain, it is a mystery.
Of note: since Birthright, Wegenka has been sadly relegated to be second assistant director for something like two-dozen made-for-TV movies. On the list of accolades I saw Better Off Dead and squawked — turns out it is the 1993 made-for-TV-movie Better Off Dead about a dramatic lawsuit. Yeah. I know.
¹I guess the dystopian part of the future is that it becomes the Hell of Female Stereotypes?