Soylent Green is set in the year 2022. Back in 1973, that must’ve seemed pretty futuristic, and yet close enough for the movie’s grim message to strike fear into the hearts of a cinema going public.
In some ways, it must also have been very reassuring. No matter that the world, fifty years down the line, would turn to shit. The 1970s man about town could tug his little cap over his fringe, run a finger across a smoothly pressed collar, pull a comb through his grizzled sideburns, and tie his neckerchief just so, secure in the knowledge that his fashion sense would never fail him.
That’s not all. Where mobile phones are now commonplace, Soylent Green still has Charlton Heston using a landline housed in a huge metal box fastened to a wall in the street.
We also see an “advanced” arcade machine, all black and white vector graphics, and bleepy-bloopy sound effects, in a rich man’s apartment.
More relevant than ever
To be honest though, it’s almost too easy to laugh at science fiction movies that have become hideously dated by their choice of clothes and surroundings. Their job isn’t really to predict the minute detail of everyday life. I’d say that sort of thing is pretty impossible. What good science fiction can do, is look at where we are today, at what we’re doing wrong, and imagine the future consequences of that in a broader, bigger picture kind of way.
Soylent Green’s message is one of overpopulation, food shortages, and global warming. Stuff that’s still relevant, if not more so, now that we’re closer to the year Soylent Green is set in.
Besides, look closer, and you’ll see that the seventies fashions are actually hiding some pretty state of the art technology, designed to combat the warmer temperatures caused by man’s environmental meddling. No, really.
The plot has probably one of the most famous twists in movie history. A search on the internet for the movie’s title will quickly throw up the story’s last line, ruining the twist in the process, so I’d advise against it if you’ve never seen the film. Even knowing the outcome, there’s still lots to enjoy though.
Charlton Heston plays a cop who’s been sent to investigate the murder of an executive of the Soylent company in his plush apartment. Soylent produces the vegetable wafers that help feed the millions of starving people living in abject poverty. Whilst there, Heston’s cop questions the live-in prostitute, charmingly referred to as “furniture”.
He also robs the apartment in front of the dead executive’s bodyguard, stuffing a pillow case with fruit, vegetables, a slice of beef, a towel and bars of soap. What I like about this scene is that despite some initial disagreement, the bodyguard barely does a thing to stop him. Even if he reported Heston, there’d be little in the way of repercussion. His superiors probably wouldn’t give a shit. It’s like there’s an understanding that times are seriously hard, real food and luxuries are scarce, so who can begrudge a cop for helping himself? Heston even pops back later for casual sex sessions with the apartment’s “furniture”, making sure to take advantage of the shower facilities.
When it's gone, it's gone...
Soylent Green makes a big thing of the little things. Real food, hot running water, electric lighting, and so on. But now only the mega rich can afford them in any quantity. Edward G. Robinson, playing Heston’s old aged roomie, is shown an extremely rare, fresh slab of beef, only to break down in tears over the tragedy of it all, over everything that has been lost.
Even though the murder of the Soylent executive is the story’s primary thrust and the basis of the twist, for me, the film’s true centrepiece is the assisted suicide: beautiful, sad, and somewhat disturbing, it helps to hammer home the message that we move through our modern lives, taking far too much of it for granted. Only when it’s all gone, will we realise how good we had it.
And the Advanced Sweat Filtration System? I’m all over the patent for that one!