Watched Soylent Green (1973) a few days ago for the first time since boyhood. The movie is based on a book by Richard Fleischer (which I haven’t read) and oddly enough has not yet been remade. How to categorize the film within familiar genres is tricky. Science fiction? Disaster? Dystopia? Police procedural? It checks all those boxes. Chief messages, considering its early 70s origin, are pollution and overpopulation, though global warming is also mentioned less pressingly. The opening montage looks surprisingly like what Godfrey Reggio did much better with Koyaanisqatsi (1982).

Soylent Green is set in 2022 — only a few months away now but a relatively remote future in 1973 — and the Earth is badly overpopulated, environmentally degraded, overheated, and struggling to support teeming billions mostly jammed into cities. Details are sketchy, and only old people can remember a time when the biosphere remained intact; whatever disaster had occurred was already long ago. Science fiction and futuristic films are often judged improperly by how correct prophecies turn out in reality, as though enjoyment were based on fidelity to reality. Soylent Green fares well in that respect despite its clunky, dated, 70s production design. Vehicles, computer screens, phones, wardrobe, and décor are all, shall we say, quaintly vintage. But consider this: had collapse occurred in the 70s, who’s to say that cellphones, flat screens, and the Internet would ever have been developed? Maybe the U.S. (and the world) would have been stalled in the 70s much the way Cuba is stuck in the 50s (when the monumentally dumb, ongoing U.S. embargo commenced).

The film’s star is Charlton Heston, who had established himself as a handsomely bankable lead in science fiction, disaster, and dystopian films (e.g., The Omega Man and The Planet of the Apes series). Though serviceable, his portrayal is remarkably plain, revealing Heston as a poor man’s Sean Connery or John Wayne (both far more charismatic contemporaries of Heston’s even in lousy films). In Soylent Green, Heston plays Detective Robert Thorn, though he’s mostly called “Thorn” onscreen. Other characters below the age of 65 or so also go by only one name. They all grew up after real foodstuffs (the titular Soylent Green being a synthetic wafer reputedly made out of plankton — the most palatable of three colors) and creature comforts became exceedingly scarce and expensive. Oldsters are given the respect of first and last names. Thorn investigates the assassination of a high-ranking industrialist to its well-known conspiratorial conclusion (hardly a spoiler anymore) in that iconic line at the very end of the film: “Soylent Green is people!” Seems industrialists, to keep people fed, are making food of human corpses. That eventual revelation drives the investigation and the film forward, a device far tamer than today’s amped up action thrillers where, for instance, a mere snap of the fingers can magically wipe out or restore half of the universe. Once the truth is proclaimed by Thorn (after first being teased whispered into a couple ears), the movie ends rather abruptly. That’s also what makes it a police procedural set in a disastrous, dystopic, science-fiction future stuck distinctively in the past: once the crime/riddle is solved, the story and film are over with no dénouement whatsoever.

Some of the details of the film, entirely pedestrian to modern audiences, are modestly enjoyable throwbacks. For instance, today’s penchant for memes and slang renaming of commonplace things is employed in Soylent Green. The catchphrase “Tuesday is Soylent Green Day” appears but is not overdriven. A jar of strawberries costs “150D,” which I first thought might be future currency in the form of debits or demerits but is probably just short for dollars. Front end loaders used for crowd control are called “scoops.” High-end apartment building rentals come furnished with live-in girls (prostitutes or gold-diggers, really) known as Furniture Girls. OTOH, decidedly 70s-era trash trucks (design hasn’t really changed much) are not emblazoned with the corporate name or logo of the Soylent Corporation (why not?). Similarly, (1) dressing the proles in dull, gray work clothes and brimless caps, (2) having them sleep on stairways or church refuges piled on top of each other so that characters have to step gingerly through them, (3) being so crammed together in protest when the Tuesday ration of Soylent Green runs short that they can’t avoid the scoops, (4) dripped blood clearly made of thick, oversaturated paint (at least on the DVD), and (5) a sepia haze covering daytime outdoor scenes are fairly lazy nods to world building on a low budget. None of this is particularly high-concept filmmaking, though the restraint is appreciated. The sole meme (entirely unprepared) that should have been better deployed is “going home,” a euphemism for reporting voluntarily to a processing plant (into Soylent Green, of course) at the end of one’s suffering life. Those who volunteer are shown 30 minutes of scenes, projected on a 360-degree theater that envelops the viewer, depicting the beauty and grandeur of nature before it had disappeared. This final grace offered to people (rather needlessly) serves the environmental message of the film well and could have been “driven home” a bit harder.

Like other aspects of the film’s back story, how agriculture systems collapsed is largely omitted. Perhaps such details (conjecture) are in the book. The film suggests persistent heat (no seasons), and accordingly, character are made to look like they never stop sweating. Scientific projections of how global warming will manifest do in fact point to hothouse Earth, though seasons will still occur in temperate latitudes. Because such changes normally occur in geological time, it’s an exceedingly slow process compared to human history and activity. Expert inquiry into the subject prophesied long ago that human activity would trigger and accelerate the transition. How long it will take is still unknown, but industrial civilization is definitely on that trajectory and human have done little since the 70s to curb self-destructive appetites or behaviors — except of course talk, which in the end is just more hot air. Moreover, dystopian science fiction has shifted over the decades away from self-recrimination to a long, seemingly endless stream of superheros fighting crime (and sometimes aliens). Considering film is entertainment meant to be enjoyed, the self-serious messages embedded in so many 70s-era disaster films warning us of human hubris are out of fashion. Instead, superpowers and supersuits rule cinema, transforming formerly uplifting science-fiction properties such as Star Trek into hypermilitaristic stories of interstellar social collapse. Soylent Green is a grim reminder that we once knew better, even in our entertainments.

Comments
  1. cafebedouin says:

    Also the namesake for an actual product in the meal replacement category, which is hilarious.
    https://soylent.com/pages/about-the-company

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