Soylent Green is what’s for dinner

soylent1The future has been the subject of movies for many years, from Flash Gordon to Forbidden Planet (1956), but Soylent Green (1973) predicts a future of great melodramatic suffering. Many movies show possible futures on Earth, but also comment on issues and philosophies at the same time.  This movie fits that mold, but Soylent Green predicts man’s future with great pessimism. The movie relies on social science and the comments of Thomas Robert Malthus, a scholar of the 19th century, who argued that the future population would grow faster than the amount of food available to them. In Soylent Green, poverty and economic upheaval are the result of overpopulation, creating a degenerative society with very little future.  

This movie has gotten a lot of hate and criticism for the amount of melodrama and overacting, which I’m not sure is warranted.  Yeah, the characters have bad wardrobes and the sets look right out of the 70s, but it’s still gritty and dark, like any other science fiction dystopia.  What really brings this movie down is the melodrama, but if you can get over that, I think it still works just as well as most science fiction dytopias.  They just take everything so seriously that there’s no room for anything else.  That isn’t to say poverty and pain are light subjects, but there’s no contrast in the performances because everyone everywhere is down on their luck, depressed, or apathetic.  Every single character.  

heston1 The world is at a standstill and only the state can even come close to controlling society’s problems. Charlton Heston plays a detective, a man who is not destitute, but quite poor nonetheless. His character reminded me of all the arguments today about why teachers or police officers aren’t paid more.  This movie works as a social comment on just about everything, but certainly isn’t much fun.  I still watch it though, mostly for the drama, and to see Charlton Heston kick major ass as he controls the screen with his angry performance.  And man, he’s angry.

His investigation in the movie takes him to rich locales, where the well-off live far beyond the situations of the poor. I’m not even sure if there is a middle class in this society, but the rich have everything they need and then some, even buying and selling people.

The year 2022 is a violent world. Soylent Green shows a riot amongst the poor when the supply of the soylent green food substitute has been exhausted, one of the things given to the poor like rations. Trucks shovel the poor out of the way and dump them like trash, perhaps the most obvious allusion in the film. Man’s inhumanity to man is a great theme within the film.

Morality breaks down within the world of Soylent Green. The state hides secrets and Heston seems to only mildly disturb the state’s one plan, a way to address the problem of overpopulation. There’s no way around it, this solution is immoral. Heston argues against it.  They don’t address any other possible solution, because this movie isn’t about exploration of the problem, so much as a movie about the consequences.  Heston doesn’t do much else than uncover the government’s secret plan, then is shuffled offscreen.

soylent3This film has melodrama, but I would say that only a rich elitist would find this film completely worthless. It has something to say, which is more than most, but its message hits you like a ton of bricks and it doesn’t beat around the bush. People are poor and they show it. They really show it. They show poverty as a social crisis.  There are 40 million people in New York at the time of this movie and 20 million are out of work.  I’m not even sure if that’s even possible, but it’s certainly over the top.  By comparison, there’s about 10 to 20 million out of work today in the whole United States.

I tried to drive into a nearby city the other day and was bombarded by endless traffic. It took over 45 minutes to go two miles. I think there was construction. Big surprise. But there was also a Lowe’s in the area, as well as a Target, a Meijer’s, a movie theatre, a strip mall, and a host of other businesses. What was once a small little city has grown into a large one, and the population has outgrown the infrastructure. Even when I drive from the suburbs to Detroit, the highway is so crowded during rush hour that it is almost impossible to not see an accident or a backup. There’s just too many damn people around here is a statement I myself have said more than once.  This doesn’t make the movie any more real, but it helps me understand where it’s coming from.  

heston2The way the movie deals with overpopulation is a little overdone, but it is no less effective. They do beat you over the head with the themes though. Right from the beginning, you know what soylent green is supposed to be, or at least what they tell you it is. Edward G. Robinson is perhaps the highlight of this film and does his best to bring a gravity to his scenes.

The death of a rich lawyer named Simonson is the crime Heston investigates. At the start, running water seems more important to him, but he eventually becomes deeply involved in finding the truth behind a conspiracy.  He seems to encounter no answers because no one knows anything, especially in a society where ambition has ground to a halt.

heston3Eventually, Heston becomes the prime target of a squad of thugs and assassins who want to protect a secret that’s been lampooned by every real life television and media source for more than a decade.  The secret of what soylent green really is makes this movie famous, but I don’t give it a pass because of that.  Other people have though.  

That ending is probably the most overdone part of the movie, but Heston has gone on record saying that he really liked the book on which this movie is based, a piece of literature that embodies a bleak future.  I haven’t read it, but I have no doubt the book is equally as depressing.   In an interview about the film, Heston complimented it and thought it was great in his opinion, which is not surprising.  Nobody is going to insult work they’ve spend a lot of time on, certainly not something they feel strongly about.

soylent2All  in all, I like Soylent Green (1973) despite the depressing tone and the melodrama.  It works for me as a social piece and I like Edward G. Robinson.  I think they try a little too hard though in presenting a possible future, but every time someone criticizes this movie, I am reminded of I, Robot (2004), a movie with Will Smith running all over the  place trying to save the future from evil robots.  If that isn’t melodrama, then I don’t know what is.  Unlike I, Robot (2004), Soylent Green (1973) has a depressing ending, which caps off the social commentary with futility.