On the 50th anniversary of Soylent Green (1973)
By Mark Wegierski
Soylent Green (97 minutes long, colour) is directed by Richard Fleischer, with the screenplay written by Stanley R. Greenberg, loosely based on the Harry Harrison novel, Make Room! Make Room! (1966). Soylent Green presents a dystopia based on the dangers of overpopulation and ecological catastrophe – which was a very trendy issue for the Left at that time. The movie is set in 2022 A.D., when the population of New York City alone is said to be 40 million.
One facet of dystopia is portraying human society under some kind of stress. The familiar social, cultural, economic, and environmental landscapes of the society we are living in now are subject to various types of stress, which twists them out of their regular shape, into something strange and unfamiliar.
Soylent Green can be seen as part of a wave of dystopian movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s (many of them starring Charlton Heston) – Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, Rollerball, and Silent Running. Here, Charlton Heston reprises again the “macho”, “tough guy” role he played so well in so many movies.
Soylent Green is a remarkably well-realized dystopia, and the term and concept has entered the popular culture.
The theme of the dangers of overpopulation was very popular in the 1970s, typified by Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Some conservatives have argued that this was an attempt to scare educated white people from having larger families – part of an anti-natalist trend typified by the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. On the other hand, some on the Left have latterly abandoned the fight against overpopulation in the Third World, as allegedly symptomatic of “racism.” It could also be argued there is today a considerable “disconnect” in conventional environmentalism between expressing concern for overpopulation in the Third World, but not seeing the link between high immigration and high population growth in the Western countries. It could be argued that a consistent ecological stance would advocate near-zero immigration. Also, some environmentalists have urged small population growth on Western societies – while actually increasingly ignoring overpopulation issues in the Third World.
The movie begins with a rather unusual introductory sequence based on vintage photographs, all of them showing large groups of people, or images of junkyards, which then moves into more current times, and then ends with the image of New York City in 2022.
We are introduced to Robert Thorn (played by Charlton Heston), a harried but conscientious police detective, who lives in a small apartment with Solomon (Sol) Roth (played by Edward G. Robinson), an elderly scholar called a “book” in this society. It is of some interest that this was Edward G. Robinson’s last (101st movie), and that he died of cancer shortly after the filming ended.
We see the dilapidated world of 2022, with hordes of homeless people living in the streets, and a severe lack of natural food. Most people subsist on “Soylent Red” and “Soylent Yellow” – but a new, highly nutritious food, called “Soylent Green” -- said to be based on plankton from the sea -- is beginning to be distributed.
One aspect of this future which appears highly questionable from today’s standpoint is the lack of computers and cell-phones. Even in a severely degraded physical environment, it is unlikely that computers and cell-phones would disappear – the energy requirements for them are not that exorbitant.
Thorn is called in to investigate the murder of Simonson (played by Joseph Cotton), an extremely wealthy and influential man who was living in an exclusive apartment complex. Thorn meets Shirl (played by Leigh Taylor-Young), who is called “furniture” (a high-class hooker who is included in the apartment rent), and Simonson’s surly bodyguard, Tab Fielding (played by Chuck Connors). The state of things is such that Thorn pilfers the real food and booze from the apartment, as he begins his investigation.
Soylent Green combines the genres of police-procedural and science fiction, to deliver a taut, tension-filled movie, that also carries an acerbic social message.
Hearing that Simonson went to see a priest a few months ago, Thorn goes to the dilapidated church, which is full of distressed people, and sees the almost catatonic priest. Apart from the constant overwork, the priest is distressed by what Simonson has told him in confession. The priest is later murdered by Tab Fielding, to silence him forever. It is interesting that religion is still shown to be in existence in this society, although it itself is under great stress. For example, the bodies of the dead are now given over to quick “sanitation disposal,” rather than buried in a funeral ceremony.
The film conveys very well different aspects of life in this dystopia – indeed, it is one of the movie’s strengths to often present various aspects of that world in a seemingly matter-of-fact, understated fashion.
For example, the scarcity of real food is superbly conveyed by the incredible pleasure with which a meal of a few vegetables, a beef stew, and two apples (along with some rare bourbon), is consumed by Thorn and Sol. One particularly remembers the image of Thorn devouring the entire apple except for the stem.
Another telling image is when Thorn pilfers a spoon with a bit of strawberry jam on it from the apartment of a high-class hooker. Strawberry jam is said to cost 150 dollars a jar.
Another dystopian image is seen in the riot control sequence. Food riots are constantly breaking out, and are dealt with harshly by the “scoops” – large trucks with huge trowels that literally scoop people off the street, and dump them into the huge bins at the back of the truck.
There is some remnant of universities and libraries portrayed in the so-called Supreme Exchange, which is the centre for the leading “books”.
Shirl is drawn to Thorn and they begin a serious love affair in the few weeks before the next tenant is expected to arrive. It is a deft touch when Shirl offers Thorn the prospect of taking a shower together and letting the water run as long as he wishes.
Based on the information contained in two thick books Thorn has pilfered from Simonson’s apartment, there is a discussion in the Supreme Exchange that concludes with a terrible truth. Sol decides it’s time to die, and he goes to the government assisted-suicide centre (which is located in Madison Square Gardens).
Sol is given a drug cocktail in a pleasantly lighted hospital-like room, and images of the old, green Earth are flashed before him on a huge screen, as light classical music plays. Yet Thorn is able to speak to him in his last moments through a voice relay system that is there for last words to the departing.
Thorn knows that the murder of Simonson was an assassination, and that it leads straight to the Soylent Corporation. Thorn sneaks atop the roof of one of the trucks that takes the human bodies for disposal from the assisted-suicide centre.
The movie becomes increasingly nightmarish as it shows Thorn in the massive industrial complex. In an original twist from Harry Harrison’s novel, it turns out that the crux of this future is cannibalism secretly administered by the rulers of the society.
Having learned this horrible truth, Thorn tries to live long enough to tell it, set upon by assassins. Dispatching a number of them, he is severely wounded by Fielding, who is the main henchman of the corporation – although he does manage to kill Fielding at the end. As his police chief Hatcher (played by Brock Peters) arrives along with a police medical team, Thorn hysterically shouts: “Soylent Green is people! Soylent Green is made of people!”
Considering that this police chief had tried to shut down the investigation earlier and appears to be “in the pocket” of Soylent Corporation, it does not seem likely that the truth will get out. This dystopic movie thus ends on a dystopic note.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher, as well as science fiction and film aficionado.