What does it take to make a great sci-fi B movie these days? One element that used to seem to guarantee one of these films might be of interest — the appearance of a hammy Nicolas Cage — no longer, I fear, is enough. That’s bad news for Rob King’s dystopian thriller The Humanity Bureau.
Cage stars as Noah Kross, an agent of the title’s bureau who exits the safe zone of his city to assess whether those humans living on the fringes of life can care for themselves and “contribute to society,” i.e., produce more than they consume. If those folks don’t pass Kross’ tests, well, they’re sent to a mysterious “New Eden” to face an unsure fate. The setting is an alternate 2017, where resources are desperately thin after multiple radiation episodes that decimated wildlife and nature, and where Cage gets to drive around in a sick El Camino while tapping on a hologram device. At first, The Humanity Bureau offers hints that it will go bonkers in the way a great Cage movie should — the script evinces a weird preoccupation with violence against children — but, alas, restraint prevails, and no character or storyline is allowed to go truly batty.
What it does deliver is Cage as Kross saying the words, “I’ve seen children drinking their own urine,” with the haunted eyes of a combat veteran, as he whips a fly-fishing line back and forth in his apartment, eventually getting the hook stuck in the canvas of a real Monet. Moments like that make me want to pat King on the back and tell him he got all the mileage he could out of his star, but there are still too few of them.
Another humdinger of a ridiculous B set-piece involves a little boy, Lucas (Jakob Davies), whom Kross has decided to save from his New Eden fate — along with Lucas’ mother, Rachel (Sarah Lind). While Kross, Lucas and Rachel are on the run from Kross’ evil bureau boss, Adam Westinghouse (Hugh Dillon), the 11-year-old Lucas takes a bathroom break away from the adults and gets his own action sequence, which is laughably graphic for such a tiny human: I told you this movie puts children in peril! Here, the action begins when Lucas plops his cheeks on the toilet seat, like he’s a creaky old Archie Bunker or something. Then an unseen hand sends some toilet paper rolling by Lucas’ feet, and he has to snap into action. There’s something jarring yet gratifying about seeing a child act physically like an adult action star, but it's far less satisfying to hear them talk like a grown-up; Lucas’ precocious dialogue grated on my nerves.
Lind plays her part with real seriousness, never daring the over-the-top approach that’s needed to equal Cage onscreen, but this is likely due to Dave Schultz’s script, which doesn’t quite know what to do with her — or her costume. How did Rachel find designer jeans in this child-eating dystopia? (Yes, there’s talk of eating children.) If only King had driven Cage and that totally bitchin’ Chevy a little further into absurdity, The Humanity Bureau could have clawed its way to B greatness.