PlotSoylent Green takes place in 2022. The world is massively overpopulated. Forty million people crowd into New York City alone, and the film suggests that the East Coast cities at least have grown together into one huge mega city. Overpopulation has caused the world to collapse as people now live in overcrowded dilapidated apartments. The homeless crowd into churches. The government has no control and can’t even begin to stop crime. Making this all the worse, pollution has destroyed the land and food is scarce. Humanity now depends on processed plankton for food. That plankton is processed by the world’s food company, called the Soylent Corporation, which provides Soylent Yellow, Red and now Green to the people through the government. The story takes place against this backdrop.
The Good, The Bad, The UglyIn some ways, this is easily the best of the 1970s dystopian films. Indeed, where this film succeeds and so many of the others fail is in making the overpopulated, overpolluted world feel real. The writer very smartly draws constant references to the details that give you a visceral feeling for what this world is like: a horrible uncomfortable world of absence and want. Society has exhausted its resources, so things like cars (and even buses and trains) are a thing of the past. Food vendors hawk crumbs and broken bits of house wares on the street. The apartments look like slums and seem to have been furnished from garbage dumps. We are constantly reminded of the heat wave, the poisoned air, and the fact that most people have never even seen the foods we take for granted. For example, Heston compares a pair of breasts to a grapefruit, only to be reminded he’s never seen a grapefruit. He needs Sol to taste a spoon to tell him what the little bit of food he’s found on it is – strawberries. He hasn’t had a hot shower in living memory. And when he sees the short film showing the images of the world long gone, e.g. trees, animals, fields, he breaks down and weeps because he wasn’t even able to image what the world had been like.
Three things make this world completely believable and make you cringe watching it. First, there are constant references to these conditions. This isn’t a film that mentions this and then forgets about it to tell its story. Every single character in every scene makes some reference to the conditions under which they live, and that keeps it constantly on your mind. Secondly, everyone accepts this reality. The government admits that it’s incapable of changing things, the people take the world as normal, and even the rich live in somewhat similar conditions. Yes, they have running water and air conditioning and modern apartments, but those things are minor. They have no cars, no estates, and not much more food than everyone else. That’s actually the key point to selling this. No possibility of escape is shown because there is no other world to escape to: this is not a tale of two worlds, nor is this a world caused by a villain who can be defeated and the world freed... this is the world.
Finally, the most important piece is Sol’s death scene. Up to this point in the film, everything has been grim and dystopian except the luxury apartment where Thorn spends a couple days with the concubine (something which suggests a very different set of morals in this world, by the way). What this has done is adjust your expectations so that you see the luxury apartment as the ideal world compared to the horrible world outside. Then Sol is shown the video of our Earth and nature in all its glory, and it strikes you how horrible this world really is that the tiny, sparse luxury apartment is viewed as paradise. This is enhanced by the death of Sol, who is the one character who gives Thorn hope. (As an aside, this is a powerful scene made all the more powerful in that Edward G. Robinson was dying of cancer when he filmed it – it was his last scene – and only Heston and Robinson knew about this. Heston claimed the scene haunted him for years and it really is easy to feel the emotion within the scene.)
Ok, but that brings up a couple problems. First, this film feels like it rambles. Had this film been made with modern storytelling techniques, it would have been a much stronger film... think the style of Minority Report. Secondly, this is a hard film to enjoy. Heston is not a likable character; he’s an abusive cop. It is an ugly film to look at. And it posits a horror, but without a solution so it is frustrating to watch.
Further, the film is ideological crap. This film was made in the 1970's when Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” was the big seller among liberals. They were convinced that humans were going to breed themselves into a polluted, overpopulated, starving world. But their ideology was deeply flawed. They ignored the fact that population growth, like other growth, is not straight-line growth... it peaks and then falls again. They wrongly assumed that “overpopulation” leads to poverty – to the contrary, some of the richest places on earth are the most densely populated (Tokyo is as large as the nightmare city in Soylent and is one of the most prosperous on the planet). And they utterly failed to grasp how vast the Earth really is. That makes the message here of culling the population before the peons breed rather obnoxious.
If you can set those things aside, however, this is a super smart and well-made film. It is one that everyone should see, even if you know the ending. Just try to forget the ending and imagine the shock of realizing the twist for the first time... and that there isn’t a thing those people can do about it.
In any event, remember that Tuesday is Soylent Green Day. Yummy.