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Humane Review: Intriguing concept, no proper hook

Three characters from the film Humane look anxious emerging from behind a pillar

Caitlin Cronenberg’s Humane contains more than a handful of thought-provoking ideas, but she doesn’t seem to have the right hook for them.

Director: Caitlin Cronenberg
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Run Time: 93′
US Release: April 26, 2024
UK Release: TBA
Where to watch: in theaters

Climate change is slowly destroying the world. We all know drastic things will happen if nobody does anything about it. But that alone doesn’t inspire people to move and do the little things. Caitlin Cronenberg’s (the daughter of the king of body horror, David Cronenberg) directorial debut, Humane, is about an exaggerated reality where the world’s government has decided to go for the worst way possible to help heal the planet from this crisis.

Humane is set in a world that is falling apart. The film begins with newsreels from around the globe about an ecological collapse plaguing it – a severe human crisis that has left everyone on tenterhooks. There’s a scarcity of food, water, and every resource imaginable.

The world’s governments have reunited to come up with a response to this crisis, one that can immediately resolve their problems without going into drastic measures. But they took too much time, and now there’s no easy way out. All international borders will be closed for the time being, and every nation will have one year to meet its population reduction goals. That means the world’s governments are now forced to shed 20% of their population to have enough equal resources for everyone. People must enlist in a “program” that randomly chooses one person to be killed by a sedative drug – the most painless death possible, yet a harrowing experience. The first image of this new world being eaten alive by the sun is people lining up to get a few pails of water.

Everybody uses umbrellas, hiding themselves from the brightest star and high UV levels. This striking image shows how harsh the conditions are for humanity. You see the houses in the background with either boarded up or tinted windows, so no light gets out. Looking onto that horizon is Charles York (Peter Gallagher, of Palm Springs), a former news reporter admired by many. Charles stares down from his multi-million dollar mansion as some handymen help mount a new piano in his bedroom. He is one of the untouchable few, a rich man who isn’t affected by the world’s troubles. Whatever happens out there, he knows everything will be fine –  at least, he will.

He feels some remorse for what is happening since his son, Jared (Jay Baruchel, of Blackberry), is one of the few professors campaigning in favor of the murderous “program”. In addition, his eldest daughter, Rachel (Emily Hampshire, of Self Reliance), is a culprit in this program being institutionalized.

Four characters dressed in smart clothes talk against a black background in the film Humane
Jay Baruchel, Peter Gallagher, Alanna Bale, and Enrico Colantoni in Caitlin Cronenberg’s Humane (Courtesy of Steve Wilkie. An IFC Films & Shudder Release.)

Charles feels like Jared and Rachel’s activity has stained his family name, and is haunted by these thoughts. One day, he gathers the family for a rare family dinner. His wife, Dawn Kim (Uni Park), prepares an array of extravagant dishes for this special occasion. This is a broken family, one that is hard to fix after all of the secrets and antics each member has pulled. Everybody is wondering why their father has asked them for this reunion. Charles reveals that he has signed his family up for the “program”. Since the government was going to protect “people like them,” they are completely against it, but right before they have the chance to discuss everything, the doorbell rings.

The York family has been chosen, and two of them must accept the deal of being executed “for the greater good”. Charles decides that he must go. But who will be the next one? None of them want to undergo the same procedure they preach about. They point fingers and look for the weakest link amongst them. The youngest sibling, Noah (Sebastian Chacon, of Daisy Jones & The Six), becomes the immediate target. Jared and Rachel use his drug addict past as the reason why he should be killed off. Things take a turn for the worse; blood begins to smear across the York mansion halls as knives are introduced into the mix. 

Just like her father, Caitlin Cronenberg makes use of an ongoing topic or crisis – in this case, how the world is slowly crumbling down due to climate change, seen through the eyes of the elite – to create a thought-provoking concept around it. While her procedure takes the form of the tired “eat the rich” satire that is commonly used in today’s cinema, there is still some merit to her visual approach to these themes. In the first couple of minutes, she provides striking images of this heightened yet possible future, like the aforementioned ones featuring hundreds of people lining up to get water and the corpses being removed from their homes.

These images are meant to provoke the viewer a bit, to irk them to the point where they think about the current status of the world and how it compares to the one Humane is set in. The problem is that there aren’t many of them. This creates a limited view of this fractured world slowly being devoured by climate change and humanity’s inability to act upon it. We hear about the atrocities through interviews with some reporters, including Jared and Rachel. But having more visuals of this calamity would have benefited the film, as Cronenberg could have created parallels between the harsh reality and the rich’s version of such: one that is blinded by exotic foods, limitless resources, and extravagant mansions.

Nevertheless, a more significant issue makes Humane far less successful in capturing the viewer’s attention and developing its themes. The screenplay is occasionally overripe and contrived to the point where serious, tension-filled scenes come across as unintentionally funny, and when exploring the satire, it feels toothless. The cast portrays their respective characters in a heightened manner to match the satire. However, it is primarily one-note and repetitive. Their conversations begin and end the same way, each reacting in the same manner as they did before. It occasionally garners some funny and entertaining banter, yet these characters feel ripped out of their humanity. This is why you don’t care for them in the long run; therefore, Humane’s climax arrives with zero emotion or weight.

It is mentioned a handful of times that the entire family keeps their secrets. But Cronenberg doesn’t want to keep digging into them, and this leaves much to be desired regarding character development. Caitlin Cronenberg has the potential to become a prominent name in today’s cinema. She focuses on essential topics and wants to do something creative with them. But she needs to be bolder and, in a way, crueler to her characters if she wants her projects to have a reactionary, magnetic force to them. Humane is a formidable debut with many solid ideas about high-class socialites scattered across a tired canvas. Yet, after providing a solid premise and introduction, it fails to hook the audience.

Humane will be released in select US theaters on April 26, 2024.

Humane: Trailer (IFC Films)
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