Science fiction has the ability both to portray fantastical possible worlds and to highlight the realities (and frequently, the iniquities) of our own world. Dystopia especially takes aspects of contemporary culture and society and exaggerates them for dramatic effect. One of the most popular themes of dystopia is class, ranging from the workers of “Metropolis” to the replicants of “Blade Runner,” from the limited lifespans of “In Time” to the district denizens of “The Hunger Games.” All these films depict highly fantastical worlds, but there is a lo-fi version of dystopia that only exaggerates technology and oppression a little, often making the film all the more chilling because of its plausibility.
Index Zero falls into this latter category, as much of it seems uncomfortably familiar. This is partially due to director Lorenzo Sportiello’s style, with a minimum of overhead shots and a handheld aesthetic that places the viewer on the same level as the characters. Index Zero also feels familiar because of its engagement with contemporary issues of immigration. The film is set in a bleak future where the United States of Europe will only allow people to enter if they have an adequate “sustainability index” — i.e., that their (potential) productivity equals their consumption. While this might sound like a sensible means of regulating resources, and indeed propaganda in the film does present the Index in this way, the effect is oppressive, as those who do not achieve a zero index are denied the right to reside in the USE. In other words, if you do not meet the mathematical standard for people, you do not qualify as people.
The depersonalization that takes place in Index Zero is expressed through the production design. Beyond the walls of the oppressive USE is a wasteland, through which the protagonists Kurt (Simon Merrells, “The Wolfman”) and Eve (Ana Ularu, “Serena”) struggle on their way to civilization. The early scenes of Kurt and Eve in the wilderness are reminiscent of “The Road” as well as “Terminator Salvation,” both in terms of the characters’ clothing and the barren landscape where they search for food and water. At the borders of the USE, a great wall stretches across the horizon, populated with guard towers. The barrier is ominous and looming while up against it is a shanty town, filled with refugees trying to enter the land beyond the wall. This section of the film is somewhat jumbled but gives the viewer a sense of the hustle and bustle of the slum, the handheld aesthetic helping to convey the uncertainty and fluidity of the environment. From here, Kurt and Eve move through immigration control, where they are poked, prodded and, in a heart-wrenching sequence, separated because of Eve’s pregnancy. While this makes her unsustainable, Kurt has the chance to remain in immigration control and work towards a zero index, his biometrics constantly monitored by an electronic bracelet. This is one of several pieces of technology that designate the film’s setting as futuristic, including drinking tubes that purify water and AI satellite navigation. But these bracelets also recall the instruments of historical oppression, identifying “lower” individuals much like a Star of David. Nor is the Index a realistic hope, as a fellow prisoner tells Kurt that he has been working towards zero for over three years. Even emotional reactions are recorded by the bracelets, people’s feelings regulated as much as actions and diet are, in order to ensure compliance.
Most importantly, procreation is regulated, as those who cannot sustain a child as well as themselves are denied entrance. This interest in procreation forms connective tissue between Index Zero and “Children of Men,” a link that is strengthened by the industrial wasteland of the mise-en-scene and Sportiello’s and director of photography Ferran Paredes’ use of long takes. But whereas Alfonso Cuarón’s film is, to an extent, a fugitive tale with immigration issues as background, Index Zero places immigration control front and center and gives the viewer the vicarious experience of being inspected, cataloged and processed. There is little sense of heroism or derring-do here — Kurt and Eve are largely passive victims of a state that is closely tied to multinationals, immigration control of the USE managed by a private company that also provides propaganda videos about its benevolence. When the protagonists do demonstrate some agency, the desperation is evident and the only success Eve and Kurt achieve is down to blind luck combined with help from sympathetic parties. This is no tale of love conquering all — it is a bleak portrayal of love barely surviving in the midst of almost relentless oppression.
The film’s theme is best expressed in a sequence when Kurt and Eve first arrive at the border, in which they make their way through a narrow, underground tunnel that leads past the wall. The sequence is intensely claustrophobic due to the tight camera angles and limited lighting, recalling “The Descent” at some moments. It also expresses the oppression these “non-sustainable” outcasts deal with, literally hemmed in on all sides with no way out but the prescribed route. Narratively the sequence is confusing, but thematically it does a fine job of communicating the abject state of the film’s protagonists.
The tunnel sequence is also one of the film’s best demonstrations of Sportiello’s effective use of his limited resources. Equivalent set pieces in “Blade Runner” or “Children of Men” involve chases and gunfire, but a tight, confined space, hemmed in by merciless rock, and with very limited light, is just as effective at conveying fear and desperation. While the film can be enjoyed as a thriller, it is all the more powerful for its sharp dramatization of concerns around immigration and refugees. As governments around the world intensify border controls and place tighter restrictions on those wishing to enter other countries, the prospect of a state that monitors and judges based on sustainability seems all too feasible. Sportiello and his collaborators accomplish a great deal in Index Zero, not least by making the film’s premise all too believable.