The Humanity Bureau
The Humanity Bureau is a Nicholas Cage vehicle, but unlike 211 I reviewed earlier, it’s a lot less predictable and, ironically, a lot more realistic.
It’s set in the near future, after we’ve decimated the planet in ways that are only alluded to and which may include excessive warring; the economy is in the toilet, resources (even food and water) are scarce, and those who can’t demonstrate that they contribute meaningfully to society are exiled to New Eden, a place where people are allowed to live comfortably on the government’s dime. Nicholas Cage’s Noah is tasked by the Humanity Bureau with investigating people and rounding up non-contributors to be sent to New Eden.
One case in particular touches him, and he is reluctant to send a woman – Rachel – and her son Lucas to New Eden. In addition, he’s heard rumours about New Eden that suggest it is not a peaceful retirement community. His side investigation into these rumours as well as his connection to Rachel and Lucas prompt Noah to escape with them into the North, hoping to cross the border into Canada before his employers catch up to them.
To some extent, the New Eden secret is fairly predictable – eliminating people is a lot more economical than putting them in one place and on a government stipend. The people Noah and Rachel encounter are the stereotypical post-apocalyptic people: the man whose family has been attacked, killed, and violated but who continues to wage the good fight, the man who sacrifices himself for what he considers a good cause even though he doesn’t know Noah, the woman who once knew someone and will help them for a price. The ending isn’t unexpected, although we may be hoping for a cheerier outcome, and the purpose of the rabbit’s foot Noah gives to Lucas might as well be accompanied by a sign that says “important plot element”.
The ending is solid, however, and a bit jarring – we really were hoping for a cheerier ending. Noah comes across as a very real person, dedicated to a job that deals with the dregs of humanity because he believes it will help the people and the economy as a whole. When he discovers the secret of New Eden, he doesn’t waste a lot of time crying about it or feeling stupid, but simply adds it to the list of things that have given him slumped shoulders and a cheerless expression. He doesn’t play on his bureau-friend’s connection to him – he doesn’t trust it anyway. He just makes a plan and executes it to the best of his ability, and he’s not a ninja or even a higher-up in the bureau, so things don’t go his way particularly.
The “bad guy” – Noah’s bureau buddy – seems every once in a while to be a regular not-always-bad person … but this misdirect only makes it double disappointing to see him commit to the wrong path. His depiction of the bad guy, at first just the typical “working for the really bad guys but without any power of his own”, changes definitively and subtly when we see him in his swimming pool – while Rachel and Lucas struggle to have enough water to drink each day. In fact, until then, there was room to see, in the presentation of some of the bureau higher-ups, that maybe New Eden was really the best solution for the current situation – a tough choice in a dark time; after we see the pool, though, we know that the Bureau, and the people who created it, are simply not good.
There’s a bit of action, but largely this is a sci-fi thriller where the bulk of the uncertainty is in how Noah, Rachel and Lucas will get away and how many of them will make it across the border. The end of the movie isn’t just about their journey but also about the outcome of their decision to flee – others would certainly benefit from knowing what Noah has discovered.
The acting in Humanity Bureau is good across the board. Few can deliver the sense of tired resignation about reality as Nicholas Cage, and it keeps us wondering if we should be optimistic about their chances or not. Even the stereotypical characters have some depth to them, some feeling. The reason for their post-apocalyptic landscape isn’t described in any particular detail, putting the emphasis thematically on the choices of the survivors – it’s more of a tale of how to behave and what sort of person to be than it is about any message about the earth or the economy. But the flashbacks Noah has to his childhood (before the apocalypse) create a real sense of nostalgia, guaranteeing that we want those kinds of memories for ourselves and that we want to avoid whatever people did to create such a horrible world.
As with most stories of this type, where the control of information is presented as even more evil than the control of people’s lives, one quote from Humanity Bureau sums it up very well: “It’s easier to build fear than to build a wall.”
Overall, The Humanity Bureau is well worth watching, and is a strong addition to a genre that has become a bit saturated of late.
8 out of 10