People are people so why should it be, that Soylent Green is tasting so deliciously?
Charlton Heston returns for the third, and last time, on Sci-Fi Saturdays with the dystopian nightmare Soylent Green. It portrays itself as a futuristic murder mystery, but delves deeply into social and economic disparity in a future where the world’s population exceeds its capacity.
The trailer opens with the question: “What is the secret of Soylent Green?” It’s 2022 and in New York City the citizens need soylent green or they riot. It sets up the main cast members and whether they know the secret of Soylent Green or not. It then seems to depict them getting killed off one by one after they discover the secret. The woman is considered a piece of furniture. There are no more books. And Charlton Heston needs to solve this case! It comes very close to spoiling the film by revealing the secret of Soylent Green (which you probably already know).
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Opening with a montage of old photos of the population growing and expanding which quickly leads to pollution, overcrowding, war, famine, and disease, Soylent Green, depicts New York City of 2022 which has a population of 40 million people. Over half these people are out of work and most live in squalor, either sleeping in tent cities, or on the stairs of apartment buildings. Few are lucky to have an actual room to their own, and even fewer have the luxury of private suites. Running water and real food is at a premium, and the majority of the population lines up in long lines for the chance to get some Soylent Green, one of the three supplements produced by the Soylent Corporation, the other two being Soylent Red and Yellow.
Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) has the luxury of a job with the NYPD and a small apartment which he shares with Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), an older gentlemen that has encyclopedic knowledge, or at least access to it, also known as a “police book.” The two are barely surviving. Thorn is tasked with solving the murder of a member of the Soylent Board of Directors, William Simonson (Joseph Cotten), who lived in a luxury apartment in Chelsea West. He was killed by a man from one of the tent cities, hired by a man in a red hat. After infiltrating the apartment, the attacker apologizes and presents a message from his employer. Simonson is not surprised and appears to have been expecting the visit.
People of Simonson’s status have the ability to rent apartments with a female concubine/prostitute/companion, referred to as “furniture,” as in they come with the apartment. Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), Simonson’s furniture, and Tab (Chuck Conners), Simonson’s bodyguard, were out of the apartment shopping when he was killed. As Thorn investigates the apartment, he is fascinated by the running water, and takes a number of items for himself including soap, towels, bourbon, and a small amount of fresh produce and meat. He takes it home for Sol to make a luxurious dinner for the two of them, which they enjoy much more than the processed Soylent supplements or the rancid margarine they normally have.
The mysterious man in a red hat, named Donovan (Roy Jenson), visits Thorn’s police Chief Hatcher (Brock Peters), and quietly pays him off to discontinue the case. Donovan appears to be working for Governor Santini (Whit Bissell), who is also on the Board of Soylent, and as Thorn discovers, bought Simonson’s company called Holcox in 2018. With the plankton farming technology Holcox offered, Soylent was able to provide food to over half the world’s population, introducing their newest food, Green. Thorn believes that Tab was in on the assassination, which is why he was out of the apartment at the time of the death.
Thorn’s investigation leads him to a church, which is an overcrowded shelter for the homeless and abandoned children, as well as still being a place of confession. The Priest (Lincoln Kilpatrick) wanders around in a daze, still shocked by the confession he took from Simonson before his death, but Thorn can’t get any more information from him. Sol does his own investigation and visits with other members of “The Exchange” in the library. Their collective knowledge comes up with an idea of what the Soylent Corporation is up to but requires proof. They deduce that the oceans can no longer produce the plankton necessary for creating the popular Soylent Green and have turned to other methods to provide the necessary protein. Sol cannot bear the idea of what they’ve uncovered and decides to “return home” to God.
Thorn gets Sol’s message and discovers him at a local euthanasia center, just as they are showing the Book a widescreen video of the nature that used to be on the planet, which ends with a beautiful sunset. Sol tells Thorn the secret of Soylent before he drifts off into a peaceful death. The audience however does not hear the message. In order to get the proof that Sol and The Exchange need, Thorn follows the Sanitation Squad truck (a trash truck) which takes the bodies to a center, supposedly for destruction. Instead he discovers that the bodies are being dumped into large vats and turned into Soylent Green. Tab and some other hitmen from the Soylent Corporation follow Thorn back to the Church, and mortally wound him. As Hatcher carries Thorn out on a stretcher he screams for the Chief to continue the investigation. “Soylent Green is people! We’ve gotta stop them somehow!”
“You know, when I was a kid, food was food. Before our scientific magicians poisoned the water, polluted the soil, decimated plant and animal life.” – Sol Roth
History in the Making
Soylent Green continues the early 1970s trend of dystopian and dour sci-fi films. The last two months of articles here have featured many top-notch, yet depressing dystopian themed films including THX 1138, The Omega Man, A Clockwork Orange, Solaris, Silent Running and Z.P.G. Lest any casual readers of Sci-Fi Saturdays think that’s all that was being produced during the early 70s, fear not. From 1970 to the release of Soylent Green in May 1973, I have identified approximately 49 science-fiction films that run the gamut of sub-genres. While many of them, as listed above, deal with dystopian themes or the perils of the planet or the human species, there were still many other varied films. For example, there exist three sequels to the Planet of the Apes franchise, five more Kaiju films from Toho Studios (three with Godzilla and two with Gamera), two films about mad-scientists transplanting heads (The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant and The Thing with Two Heads), an adaptation of the proto-time travel story Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, a sequel to The Blob, and another Kurt Russell comedy, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t.
Soylent Green marks the end of the long stretch of these “downer” films. While the dystopian film is by no means gone from the sci-fi lexicon, films over the remainder of the decade would be spread out amongst the various sub-genres. More sequels, horror films, space fantasy films, and comedies would even out the balance of types of science-fiction films up to the release of the largest game changer: Star Wars.
Starting with 1968s Planet of the Apes, and 1971s The Omega Man, Soylent Green is the last sci-fi film to feature Charlton Heston. While Planet of the Apes may be his most famous genre work, his performance in this film is by far his best. His portrayal of Detective Thorn features a departure from his normal overbearing and confident self, as seen in The Omega Man. His pained realization of the reality of his world, and his beautiful performance during Roth’s death scene set this film apart and above his other recent work. The film also features one of the most shocking endings since Planet of the Apes. As with Apes, and The Empire Strikes Back, even non-fans (or at least people who have not seen the films) know the shocking twist, as Heston’s final phrase has become so much a part of pop-culture. This knowledge however doesn’t spoil the revelation, as the rest of the film is ripe with content.
When thinking about what Soylent Green adds to the genre, it seems to be more of a refinement of previous themes and settings, then a film that sets a new plateau in the genre. Of all the futuristic and dystopian films before it, Green is able to create a strong sense of a lived in 21st Century world, complete with strange customs (at least to the 20th Century viewer), and unexplained futurism. It just is.
As an example Z.P.G. creates a future with overpopulation, but does little to realize that scope on film. Soylent Green showcases hundreds of extra for multiple scenes in the outdoor queues of the marketplace. Dozens of bodies sleep on the staircases of Thorns apartment, or in the narthex of the church. Many broken cars house families in the tent cities outside Chelsea West where Donovan hires his assassin. And while the outdoor scenes are not covered in toxic smog like Z.P.G., there is constant haze that covers and oppresses everything. The props and characters clothing reflects the squalor that even normal people live in. And conversely, the design for the rich feels more like a modern 1970s apartment and lifestyle.
Soylent Green doesn’t spend a lot of time on certain aspects of the future, but shows how different life is in the early 21st Century. Thorn marveling over running water and soap shows how much has been lost to the Western world in the 50 intervening years. The lack of books, fresh food, and even technological advancements help to depict a nearly post-apocalyptic world. The biggest, and maybe most shocking changes, are the use of females as “furniture.” While the use of women as objects is not anything that is new or ground-breaking, the overt position of this new social class is shocking, given the women’s rights movement of the early 70s and their liberation from the male dominated society. It’s as if the filmmakers are saying that it’s all for naught. That the more things change, the more they stay the same–or at least that the pendulum of female empowerment will swing radically in the other direction in the future.
The future is also robust and self-consistent within the story. While 2001: A Space Odyssey creates an internally consistent future, with technology, Soylent Green does the same thing with a dystopian reality. Printed material doesn’t exist in the future, so certain intelligent and older humans have formed groups to preserve knowledge. Calling themselves “books” they specialize in certain disciplines, like Roth’s police procedure. In the world of 20 million employed citizens of New York, graft is an important social lubricant. Thorn takes luxury items from Simonson’s apartment, making sure to give kickbacks to his Captain and his friend on the Sanitation Squad. Donovon uses bribes to influence the police. And Roth provides unknown volumes of books to the members of the Exchange. The film portrays the underworld-like behavior as many might see it, as the norm in this future world.
Of course the biggest thing Soylent Green tries to do is present a warning about the perils of continuing to live the way that the Western world is accustomed to. I won’t get into all of the stats about overpopulation that I put in the Z.P.G. article, but here’s some information to know. In the film, the year is 2022, and the population of New York City is listed as 40 million people, half of which, we are told, are unemployed. Being that this article is written in early 2020, we’re (luckily) not that close to hitting that number. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2017 the population of New York was only 8.623 million. So within the next two years, the population probably will not exceed 10 million, or one-quarter of the people that the film depicts. That’s still a lot of people, but nowhere near the density that Soylent Green depicts.
The film also tries to depict the wonders of the planet Earth that may soon be gone if humanity is not careful. Everything that Thorn has ever known is concrete and dust. He eats processed food manufactured from soy and lentils, and very rarely gets to eat any “real food.” On the other hand Sol remembers the way it used to be, and on his death bed has chosen to be shown a video of the best aspects of nature that no longer exist. This sort of media is not something that appears to get widely distributed. Thorn is able to catch a glimpse of the flowers, animals, rivers, mountains, trees and sunsets being shown to Sol, and in an amazing moment of acting, Charlton Heston delivers the awe and humility that Thorn feels in seeing these things for the first time. Sol says to Thorn, “isn’t it beautiful?” To which Thorn tearfully replies, “how could I ever imagine?”
As with Silent Running, Soylent Green also starts the trend of using corporation and mega-corporations as the antagonists in sci-fi films. The Soylent Corporation knowingly and willfully begins using dead bodies to produce its popular Green product, keeping that information from the public. As different individuals find out about the new process, they are killed by the corporation attempting to keep its secret. It’s the extrapolation of modern-day corporate tactics and espionage taken to the Nth degree. Imagine if Coca-Cola would go to great lengths to keep its formula secret? Other sci-fi films would continue this trend with more vile and evil businesses doing worse and worse things. Delos Inc. would try to keep news of the killer robots in their Westworld park quiet. OCP likewise would prefer the public did not know about the problems with their popular Robocop model. And the Tyrell Corporation would prefer that people not know about the new “more human than human” replicant they’ve constructed. Let’s not even get into the complete lack of ethics shown by the Weyland-Yutani Corp and their xenomorph issue. Large, monolithic and oppressive groups, like governments and business make great antagonists in the world of sci-fi, since they have an overpowering and over-bearing stature when compared to the hero. Literally a Goliath vs David scenario.
The Science in The Fiction
The film’s approach to the science of feeding a planet where 40 billion people live in one mega city is a sound approach. Currently in 2020, 3.6% of the U.S. landmass is made up of urban areas, with the crops we use taking up an additional 20%. The amount of space used by animals used for food, their grazing land, and the grains to feed them makes up a staggering 41% of space. That’s approximately 800 million acres of space. And the use of all this space to grow meat is equally inefficient. Science tells us it takes 25 times more energy to get one calorie of that meat to the table, than it does for one calorie of corn. Not efficient at all. In a world where the population takes more and more space, a new solution must be found. If the U.S. were to move to a meatless society, the amount of land needed for crops to feed the population would decrease, freeing up a lot of that other space for housing the masses. Companies like Soylent and Halcox would then be able to create food products like Soylent Yellow and Red, which contain the necessary nutrients needed to survive. In fact the word Soylent is a portmanteau of the words ‘soy’ and ‘lentil,’ the two key ingredients in their food, which provide adequate sources of protein in a vegetarian diet.
Another possible food source is plankton, which is supposedly the key ingredient in Soylent Green. But as Thorn discover’s and tries to share with his captain, “The ocean’s dying. Plankton’s dying.” A lack of plankton being overfarmed from the oceans would lead to such a shortage that the corporation would need to find some other protein source. Whether this depletion is due to the ocean being unable to support the growth (possibly increased greenhouse gases and a rise in temperature could have altered the planet enough to prevent the growth), or possibly over farming the crops, Soylent Green was quite prophetic in its depiction of the resource depletion. A 2010 study reported that plankton has “has declined more than 40 percent since 1950 and the rate of decline is increasing.” Hopefully, we’re still a long way off from transforming dead bodies into food wafers.
The Final Frontier
As a film, the cast is made up of many great performers and movie legends, both within the genre and outside. Obviously the immediate draw is Charlton Heston in the lead role. It was the last major sci-fi role for him, but he would cameo in several lower budget genre films throughout his career, as well as having a cameo in the 2001 Tim Burton reboot of Planet of the Apes. Leigh Taylor-Young was primarily a dramatic actress but did have roles in the 80s sci-fi film Looker, plus a minor cameo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Of course, Edward G. Robinson was a big name in the gangster films of the 30s and 40s, as well as sharing the screen with Heston in The Ten Commandments. This was his last film, having died several days after the filming of his character’s death scene. Lincoln Kilpatrick, who was the priest, was the mutant second in command with Heston in The Omega Man. The distinctive voice of the Exchange Woman, who was portrayed by Celia Lovsky, is best known to sci-fi fans as T’Pau, matriarch of the Vulcans from Star Trek. Dick Van Patten, famously known as the father on Eight is Enough, has an early cameo as an usher in the euthanasia center, (he also appears in next week’s Westworld). Whit Bissel appeared previously in The Time Machine. Paula Kelly, who is Tab’s “furniture” was a nurse in The Andromeda Strain, and Brock Peters, the Chief of Police, played an admiral in Star Trek IV & Star Trek VI, plus was the voice of Darth Vader in the National Public Radio Dramas of the Star Wars films.
The impact of the film still continues to be relevant to modern life, almost 50 years later. In 2014 Rob Rhinehart created a meal replacement he called Soylent. He chose to name the product after the company in this film, and in the source-novel by Harry Harrison called “Make Room! Make Room!,” due to the association of the name with the fact that it’s made “of people.” He hoped that the public would be intrigued and look further into what the product entailed. Of course, Soylent is not made from people in the real world (that we know), but is derived from soy and lentils, as in the film. It includes powders, drinks, food bars and other supplements.
While Soylent Green stands as a solid film that speaks to the future of the planet and its people, it does look a little dated. That doesn’t necessarily detract the viewer from the content, as there’s plenty of social commentary and philosophical talking points to provide the “meat” of the film, as it were. It still exists as a relevant discussion about the health of the planet and the populace, which happens to use a shocking twist to keep people talking about the film and its message.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.