Motherhood is a pretty scary thing. Particularly when it comes to the typical nine-month gestation period that produces a newborn child, the horror genre has been a hotbed of filmmakers exploring the visceral terror inherent in the body-altering state of pregnancy and the bloody act of giving birth. Perhaps this is why False Positive feels so fractured within this realm—for all of the diverse and interesting explorations within this subgenre, co-writers Ilana Glazer and John Lee limit their film by exclusively riffing on the notoriously inimitable Rosemary’s Baby.
Directed by Lee, False Positive follows Lucy (Glazer) and her husband Adrian (Justin Theroux) as they undergo cutting-edge fertility treatment as a last-ditch effort to become pregnant. Thanks to Adrian’s status as a star surgeon, they skip the years-long waitlist and are promptly seen by Adrian’s former professor Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), one of the top-rated obstetricians in the country. When Lucy successfully becomes pregnant through artificial insemination, her glowing joy only lasts for so long. She quickly becomes aware that her husband and Dr. Hindle might be making decisions about her body—and baby—behind her back. When Lucy is dismissed by friends who say she has a typical case of “mommy brain” after voicing her suspicions, the mom-to-be begins taking matters into her own hands.
Lee and Glazer intend False Positive to be a candid 21st century remake of Rosemary’s Baby, elevating the conversation to include the American healthcare system’s deeply rooted misogyny, workplace sexism and the ongoing precarity of women’s bodily autonomy post-Roe v. Wade. However, these ancillary contemporary updates only make the plot’s clumsy Rosemary rip-offs that much less subtle. Furthermore, the film being a self-described contemporary take on disgraced director Roman Polanski’s magnum opus points to an apparent lack of understanding that Rosemary’s Baby has been alluded to, re-made and dissected within the genre for over 50 years.
David Cronenberg examined motherhood-as-monstrosity in 1979’s The Brood, which similarly to False Positive, saw a shady doctor exploiting the reproductive functions of his patients. The perils of artificial insemination are also used to examine the anxiety surrounding women’s bodies as grounds for experimentation in Demon Seed (1977), Inseminoid (1981) and The Unborn (1991). Other themes intrinsic to Rosemary’s Baby, and thus False Positive, include the nefarious actions of husbands (1990’s Baby Blood, 2017’s mother!) and the psychological terror of pregnancy (2016’s Antibirth and Prevenge). Simply put, a variety of films have paid homage to the overall plot or specific kernels of thought presented in Rosemary’s Baby. For one film to characterize itself as the definitive modern-day telling of Polanski’s tale—itself based on Ira Levin’s 1967 novel of the same name—is preposterous, as the film has been rehashed consistently since its release (including what has been dubbed the “lesbian Rosemary’s Baby,” 2014’s Lyle).
For a film that wishes to upset certain harmful practices and preconceived notions concerning pregnant bodies, False Positive remains entrenched in conventional, heteronormative gender roles that are as outdated as Rosemary’s defiantly “masculine” haircut. Lucy’s most prominent departures from the character of Rosemary include holding a quasi-secretarial job as well as unraveling the conspiracy against her in under a half-hour…and that’s about it. Lucy even appears less curious than the original character she’s based on, finding answers from Black doula Grace Singleton (Zainab Jah) in lieu of a library book. In fact, False Positive’s insistence on highlighting the dangerous dismissal of women’s pain within the healthcare industry while using the film’s sole Black character as a stereotype for “holistic” birthing is not only racist, but frustratingly shiftless. The fact that Black mothers in America face a disproportionate rate of complications and death as a result of medical malpractice and overt racism during labor has been the basis of investigative reports for years, so False Positive framing this as a unique problem for an affluent white woman is a serious misstep.
However, there are small pleasures within the otherwise painful pastiche. The cinematography by frequent Ari Aster collaborator Pawel Pogorzelski adds a compelling veneer to the film, though the moody, pitch-black shots can often appear as an inky void of little narrative value. Additionally, Lucy Railton and Yair Elazar Glotman’s score is perfectly hypnotic. In this sense, the film is a perfect aesthetic addition to production company A24’s horror catalog, featuring sharp cinematography and a droning score that add a slick layer of palpable dread. The bolstered production quality alone makes False Positive worth a watch, alongside Brosnan’s sparse yet well-acted Dr. Hindle.
Whether it boils down to the insistence on remaking a cinematic staple, an unwillingness to look to the genre’s multifaceted depictions of pregnancy and birth, creative laziness or a fatal combination of all of the above, False Positive fails to deliver. Lee’s status as one of the minds behind outsider comedy classics like Wonder Showzen and Xavier: Renegade Angel held promise for this project to impart a satirical message about what not to expect when you’re expecting. Unfortunately, even False Positive’s shortcomings are uncharacteristically boring, generic and empty.
Director: John Lee
Writers: John Lee, Ilana Glazer
Stars: Ilana Glazer, Justin Theroux, Pierce Brosnan, Zainab Jah
Release Date: June 25, 2021 (Hulu)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.