The final entry in Chuck Heston’s mid-career sci-fi trilogy (I’m not counting his Beneath the Planet of the Apes extended cameo). He hadn’t so much as sniffed at the genre prior to 1967, but over the space of the next half decade or so, he blazed a trail for dystopian futures. Perhaps the bleakest of these came in Soylent Green. And it’s only a couple of years away. 2022 is just around the corner.
The secret of Soylent Green is, of course, everything about the movie. Like The Sixth Sense, it would probably be quite difficult to come to the picture now without having had its reveal spoiled. Which is interesting in itself, because it absolutely doesn’t have the twist impact of Shyamalan’s film (we’ve been prepped that there’s a mystery to solve relating to Soylent Corporation). Or the resonance of, say, the visual cue of the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes. The knowledge that Soylent Green, the tastiest of the future’s subsistence food sources, is human bodies is more of a grim underlining of the pit of despair life has descended into. There’s no rotten core to an outwardly shining and enviable future; everything stinks.
In Harry Harrison’s novel, set in 1999, the global population is seven billion, which isn’t far from the current figure, at least officially… He pegs New York City at thirty-five million (forty in the movie), which is a lot further out; nineteen is near enough the current figure. Harrison didn’t have the central twist, nor the high-class prostitution (expensive apartments tend to come with a chattel). His was more an outright meditation on the professed overpopulation problem; it had been gaining cachet, but Harrison had the idea planted as far back as 1946. Stanley R Greenberg adapted the novel (having penning Heston’s hit Skyjacked the previous year). He emphasised the eco-commentary and “We’re destroying our world” angle earlier highlighted by Silent Running (and No Blade of Grass before that).
There are numerous parallels to Blade Runner here, which arrived almost a decade later. But where Ridley Scott’s design aesthetic produced a choking beauty in its polluted, sodden LA and post-modern retro-futurism, Richard Fleischer, whose previous genre entries included 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage and, er, Doctor Dolittle, produces something inspired by a 1970s you simply can’t get nostalgic for. There’s no hint of technological progress in the subsequent fifty years: just filth and breakdown. To a degree, this no-nonsense approach is to Soylent Green’s detriment, as it’s a picture with enough ideas about its world that it might have benefited from lingering more and being less ready to cut to the chase. It might have benefited from wallowing in art direction, basically.
But it shares with Blade Runner a vision of inescapable, suffocating urban compression, with a populace of little people at the mercy of all-powerful corporations. Where the masonically-textured Tyrell Corporation offers us gleaming artistry and impeccable taste, though, Joseph Cotten’s rich retiree Simonson, assassinated early on for his unreliability towards the Soylent Corporation – he isn’t comfortable with their big secret – only enjoys a relatively better lot. He has fresh food, and “furniture” (Leigh Taylor-Young’s Shirl) at his disposal, but he’s nevertheless a prisoner of the city just like everyone else. And of the corporation, which controls the food supply for half the world; I did wonder who controls the other half’s. Perhaps the Ail Corporation, given Soylent is derived from combining soya and lentil.
Indeed, Soylent Green falls short generally in connecting the dots of this bigger picture. Blade Runner furnishes the tech of synthetics and the carrot of off-world colonies (and, in the original trashed release, unspoiled vistas of escape). Soylent Green draws a compellingly portrait of squalor and deprivation, but has little sense of the top-down view. Blade Runner gives us Tyrell, but Soylent offers up only lackeys.
So we learn that there’s no point going away to another city (“They’re all like this”) and that the countryside is out (“That’s not allowed. Those farms are like fortresses”). Which rather conjures images of Agenda 21 and its plan to corral the population into city environments. But that, presumably, will leave the unoccupied areas free for the luxuriating one percent.
There appears to be no real planning in Soylent Green’s case, either economic or in terms of population. Certainly nothing on the scale of Bill’s grand circus of culling/ sterilisation/ technocratic plug-in, or even just extending the scale of Soylent Green operations from voluntary euthanising of the elderly to a more expansive, enforced level (as Thorn suggests in parting: “The next thing they’ll be breeding us like cattle, for food”).
While the plastic-looking chips of Soylent products – “Tasteless, odourless crud” – resemble your popularly envisaged space food, they don’t seem so out of keeping conceptually with our heavily-processed vegan/vegetarian products that, yes, are often produced from soya and lentils. It’s simply that this brave new world is a bit behind the times with regard to the adoption of lab-grown meat.
As to the Green itself, one of the themes that comes up in exposés of the Elite (Aug Tellez, for example) is the occult practice of making us complicit cannibals by incorporating human meat into the food chain. Obviously, though, this would represent a more calculated purpose philosophically than simply providing nourishment to the hungry (and lest you scoff, human DNA has been found in burgers, and of course, aborted foetus tissue is put in vaccines). Like tasty burgers, Soylent Green has achieved “immense popularity”. As a result, however, it is in short supply, its unavailability frequently causing food riots (“Remember, Tuesday is Soylent Green day”). The publicity meanwhile boasts that it is produced from “high energy plankton gathered from the oceans of the world”,
Fleischer sets the scene with a “march of progress” opening sequence, a succession of still photos charting industrialisation, seas of plastic, face masks (yes) and smog; this was, of course, back when the “greenhouse effect” was a buzz word. Necessity has since downgraded that to the ambivalent and malleable “climate change” (although, manufacture the right diminutive figurehead for the movement, and it can still make for a highly emotive phrase, producing a dramatic effect on proponents and naysayers alike).
2022 swelters under a yearlong heatwave (“Everything’s burning up”) and Chuck’s cop Thorn, upon being called to Simonson’s address, wastes no time in making use of the aircon and splashing his face in clean water. As well as making off with trophies of the job – fresh veg, soap, bourbon and bona-fide real dead beef.
Thorn: I know, I know. When you were young, people were better.
Sol: Aw, nuts. People were always rotten. But the world was beautiful.
The dystopian cynicism is probably the picture’s strongest card (crying is only something old people do now, so hardened have we become). Thorn and his intelligence analyst, or “Book”, Sol (Edward G Robinson in his last role) live in a crummy apartment, but it beats the building’s stairs, crowded with sleeping bodies Thorn has to navigate every night. Jobs are scarce, so perhaps they are condemned to a subsistence of universal credit (Thorn notes at, one point, that spending two days off work would lose him his job). They get their power from a bicycle (you’d have though solar would be a big thing…)
The police are blithely corrupt. Aside from stealing from crime scenes, Thorn orders the furniture into bed (this may be less sexist than it is simply reductively commodifying everyone and everything to first principles). It seems there’s no such thing as a search warrant anymore either. The extent of overcrowding means just anyone can’t be on the streets at any one time (“First stage removal: Streets prohibited to non-permits in one hour”).
Still, though, Fleischer’s lack of finesse means it isn’t difficult for the actors to make this their own. The scenes that linger are the ones with the human element front and centre. The relationship between Thorn and Sol is touching, Heston and Robinson making good on their chemistry (they previously shared the screen in The Ten Commandments, and Robinson dropped out of Apes after screen testing for Dr Zaius). There’s the great scene of Thorn and Sol’s meal of real food.
However, the highlight is one where Fleischer does deliver, with the widescreen sensory lustre that accompanies Sol’s death: a montage feast of nature lost, set to Beethoven’s Sixth Pastoral Symphony (presumably such imagery isn’t available on their clapped-out TV, as Thorn too observes the vistas, awestruck). There’s a not dissimilar quality to the sensory assault of The Parallax View’s induction film the following year.
Cheekily, Beethoven’s Sixth also plays out over the end credits, so while Chuck survives the movie, there’s little doubt that word won’t reach the Council of Nations, who are doubtless complicit with Soylent anyway (if it even gets that far, since Thorn’s lieutenant Brock Peters has already been seen doing the mayor and thus Soylent’s bidding, and admitting it to Thorn).
Really, though, should anyone hearing have been surprised that “The ocean’s dying. The plankton’s dying…” if the land is in the mess it is? Still, if the picture leaves itself open to criticisms of a shortcomings in internal logic – per Penelope Gilliatt in The New Yorker: “Where is democracy? Where is the popular vote? Where is women’s lib? Where are the uprising poor., who would have suspected what was happening in a moment…?” – as the recent plandemic has proved, it doesn’t take very much to suppress a population.
In contrast, Time Out’s Geoff Andrew came out expressly in Soylent Green’s favour (“Good, solid stuff, assembled efficiently enough to be pretty persuasive”), even if he overstates its superiority to the “silly juvenilia” of Lucas and Spielberg that followed. What is evident is that, until Ridders and George Miller offered an antidote about half a decade later, this was the last in the line for unchecked big studio dystopias (although, I guess Zardoz sort-of counts). Logan’s Run, a couple of years on, would provide the set up but also the satisfactory resolution, very much a signpost of the manner in which the science-fiction baton would be exchanged for something sunnier and more optimistic.