Last weekend, I finally watched 1973’s Soylent Green. I have a rule that if I make repeated references to a film over time, I’ll make an effort to see the original film at some point (called, for obvious reasons, “The Deliverance Rule”); in the case of Soylent Green, however, I’d been putting it off for years.
I have a problem, you see: years of religious education as a youngster have given me a lasting aversion to apocalypses and dystopias. I’m probably the only person who felt sick after Tom Cruise’s War of the Worlds movie because of the actual plot. The only exception is Hellboy, and as I read more of that, it seems less like an exception and more like long-form masochism on my part*. So I expected that Soylent Green would, at a minimum, ruin my day.
It didn’t come close.
If you’re not familiar with anything about the movie but the titular Soylent Green food substance being made of “Peeeeople!,” a brief rundown: in an environmentally depleted near future, Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) stumbles onto a secret when a member of the Soylent Company’s board is assassinated. Soylent makes nutrition squares that meet the food needs of most of the non-wealthy in this society: think Clif Bars without the cachet and tastiness. Along the way we see glimpses of $150 vegetables, apartments that come with supplied concubines, and suicide parlors—where Thorn’s roommate eventually checks in after learning the truth about Soylent Green. In the tradition of ’70s nihilistic movies of all stripes, Thorn is fatally wounded before he can broadcast the news of Soylent Green’s very special recipe.
I think there are several reasons the movie didn’t work for me, many of which aren’t really its fault:
- Their near-future plot takes place in 2022, and we’re supposed to believe the planet has been screwed up for so long that Heston’s character can’t really remember real food. I’ve never been happier about the state of the earth in 2015 in my entire life as I was while watching Soylent Green.
- The scene in which Thorn is running around the factory and discovering the truth is almost laughable: bodies are apparently being turned into food while still in bags. New Chewy Soylent Green, I guess?
- There are two things TV and movies in the 1970s seemed sure were imminent: the unlocking of the mind’s psychic potential and the American adoption of the metric system. This would have been a better movie if they’d gone with that first one.
- The look of the downtrodden citizenry in Soylent Green is heavily derivative of pictures of Soviet breadlines, which probably worked for the film’s viewers for a while, but which now suggests that anyone looking to get rich in 2022 might want to invest heavily in headscarf manufacture.
- The movie steps on its own premise as far as I’m concerned, making a world so grim it’s hard to believe anybody would care that they’re eating people. Hey, at least someone’s recycling. (This may well be just me: in an ideal world, my mortal remains would be turned into a skeleton in someone’s science class, or they’d overturn the law about binding books in human skin and I’d have to finally finish a novel before making my will. I have a very flexible idea of respect for the dead, I guess.)
As a cultural artifact, Soylent Green is
people!!!! interesting, but it’s so rare that I get to write about a movie and conclude that yes, in this day and age, it maybe is for the faint of heart.
*Don’t get me wrong: Hellboy is excellent, but I shouldn’t be reading it.