04 March 2022

52 for '22: Soylent Green

Movie: Soylent Green (1973)
Method: HBOMax

"We've got to ship these to that train going around the world, STAT!"

Why did I watch this?

Well, first of all, it just popped on HBOMax. They're really good about this stuff. But also, it was a film I had somehow never seen before, and it's famously now set in 2022! So, I really wanted to check out a look at our time from the lens of 1973. This was not on my pre-set list, so it's our first spontaneous BONUS of the year!

What did I know going in?

Not much, actually. This really shouldn't be a spoiler for anyone, but I of course knew the "Soylent Green is people!" bit and that it was Charlton Heston. That's pretty much it. I was very eager to see how an actual plot was woven around this huge reveal.

What did I think?

I'm surprised that contemporary reviewers didn't seem to enjoy this that much. Soylent Green in my mind has always been a seminal science fiction film, like a Planet of the Apes (1968) or Logan's Run (1976), although I don't actually think many folks have seen the latter. But it was largely dismissed at the time. The ending is really the clincher that put this film over the top, but with 2022 vision...damn a lot more of this rings true.

The 70s were just the beginning of the environmental movement, and as the pace of life accelerated we had suddenly a lot of panic about our changing world. It's fascinating see the filmmakers extrapolate our current trends fifty years, which may have been mocked at the time, but are now largely true, or at least realistically true. Sci-fi works when it takes one step beyond where we are now, and although we're not in the zone where no natural food exists yet, there's a lot of prophecy in this movie.

The basic premise is that in the future, overpopulation, climate change, and poverty have gotten so bad that all natural food costs hundreds of dollars and is exceedingly rare. Instead, most people live off food from the Soylent corporation (the fact that there actually IS a Soylent corporation these days is bonkers), which are purportedly made from either Soybeans or plankton farms in the ocean.

New York City has a population of 40 million people, about half of which are unemployed. In 2022 the city proper is 8 million and the metro is 18 million, so we're not quite there yet. But Soylent Green pictures a society so overcrowded that most people sleep in stairwells, have no possessions and wait in long lines to eat their friends.

There is a wealthy elite, though, who notably made their wealth on literally killing the poor and feeding it back to them, and the movie kicks off by one of the Board of Directors learning this fact and becoming unstable. He's murdered, and Charlton Heston plays the detective trying to investigate why. It's a good framing to get into this world. I like how easygoing corruption and accepted was among the police force and how bad their uniforms were. It demoted police to a real blue collar level, who are scraping by like anyone else.

Also always in the background is the fact that climate change has gone crazy. They comment that it's 90 degrees at night, everyone is sweating all the time, and the reason for food shortages is that we've destroyed the soil, polluted the air, and poisoned the oceans. Whenever they are outside there is a green haze over everything, which is a nice bit of cinematography. Like I said, one degree removed from today, but a world where we have rampant food insecurity, an enormous and growing gulf between rich and poor, and out of control climate change, heat and humidity sounds very familiar.

There is more magnificent worldbuilding. At one point Heston comments that farms and countrysides have become like fortresses, built up to protect precious food, lest starving roving people storm their garrisons. The dead are transported to waste disposal plants (which are definitely the same as Soylent plants, how did no one see this coming?), which are also fortified. Basically, people who want to change their station in life have no option of doing so.

You could become a house whore, or "furniture" and live in a nice apartment with running water and just get banged all day, as some women do. This movie is not without its 70s smarm, Heston definitely doesn't rape a girl, but it's such a casual and transactional sexual encounter that...it's an uncomfortable area. But then he defends them and stops them from being beaten by their landlord / pimp, so...good?

My thought is that when we first hit this kind of stuff in the 70s we panicked. We could sense our lives changing and our thoughts went to the worst possible place, which is something we still see today. Johnny Mnemonic (1995) comes to mind when the Internet first took off and we got so scared we made a dystopian future about it. See? This all comes together. Now, I know the source for this film was Harry Harrison's 1966 book, Make Room! Make Room! but wikipedia says the film was heavily changed and Harrison locked out of the production, so I'm going with a more contemporary attitude influencing this film's creation.

Also, a dump truck for cleaning up pesky rioters!
The cast here is great. Charlton Heston is so good. His career did take a weird sci-fi turn, but he really is a good actor. He unfortunately makes everyone else look bad in comparison, especially when he's talking to Shirl and the bodyguard. I did not even recognize him, but this was also Edward G. Robinson's last film, and his death scene was the last scene he ever shot. He passed away twelve days after shooting wrapped up. Also, my mind was blown, because I knew that scene from The Simpsons and never realized they were ripping it off from Soylent Green. And Dick Van Patten is in that scene! I don't know why!

I really enjoyed this movie. I do feel like the reveal where Heston realizes Soylent is people isn't well connected. Like, he sees bodies going in a big soup and then he sees a conveyor belt of Soylent Green. He later claims "I've seen it! They're turning people into food!" Like no you didn't. They could have been unrelated. I rewound and re-watched to make sure I didn't miss anything. I didn't. It sticks with you, though. The ending is ultimately ambiguous.

It's a lot of fun, watch it, even if you know the ending. The point is the whole movie, which hits harder in a 2022 that doesn't feel that off.

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