Locus Online
Features Indexes
Sunday 23 September 2007

Soylent Green: An Appreciation 34 Years Too Late

by John Shirley

Directed by Richard Fleischer

Written by Stanley R. Greenberg, from the novel by Harry Harrison

Starring Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Conners, Joseph Cotten, Brock Peters

Soylent Green, shown recently on Turner Classic Movies, was based on a solid story by classic SF writer Harry Harrison; directed by Richard Fleischer, the film won the Nebula Award in 1973. This dystopian film about an overpopulated, greenhouse-overheated, polluted, famine-plagued future did pretty well and got some attention. But in short order, it was also ridiculed. The shocking end was fairly obvious and not so shocking; the script seemed absurdly shrill, at the time, and there was a clunkiness about the science-fiction elements, especially the technical stuff — and then again it's easy to make fun of Charlton Heston movies. (Edward G. Robinson was excellent in this, his last role, as Heston's aging roommate: Robinson's character dies in it — and Robinson died in real life a month later.)

So it was fashionable to make fun of the film. Yet except for the tech, which was outdated within a few years of the movie, and the literal Soylent-Green-is-people part, it was not far from our coming reality. The first thing, to remember, however, is that this movie wasn't about science-fictional predictions — it was really a metaphor about the emerging society. The film's most indelible image is of a garbage truck with an earth-mover scoop on the front, picking up masses of struggling people from a rioting crowd and dumping them in back like living garbage. Would it happen? Maybe not. But it happens even now — symbolically. And the whole notion of recycling people into food is a social symbol. We do it, in a way, in sweat shops. We use up their lives to make our living.

Second, this film does offer some correct predictions — in 1973 it was talking about "the greenhouse effect" slowly "burning the world up". And they talk about the death of the oceans leading us to desperate measures to find food — our own seas have lost something like half their fish and are threatened by acidification and vast tracts of plastic debris. And though we're not currently as overpopulated as Harry Harrison feared, today's third world is very like the New York City of Soylent Green, and as the population doubles by 2050, and as resources undercut by global warming get scarcer, the privileged corners of the world may soon resemble the third world... just as this clunky old film predicted. And it's not unlikely that in our resource-challenged future, something like the film's perfumed and solicitous euthanasia center will be commonplace.

The nuanced, character-driven movie also predicted the loss of natural beauty — and it dramatizes the disparity between the rich and the poor, and the callousness we're developing, even now, as we get daily reports of car bombings slaughtering hundreds in Iraq, and tens of thousands dying of waterborne diseases in India...

This is a recent quote from a real-life news article: "Climate change could have global security implications on a par with nuclear war unless urgent action is taken, a report said on Wednesday. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) security think-tank said global warming would hit crop yields and water availability everywhere, causing great human suffering and leading to regional strife."

A woman with a toddler leashed to her arm dies on a church steps. That's the vision of Soylent Green. And Charlton Heston did very well to shout, "We've got to stop them — somehow!"

© 2007 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.