Science fiction films haven’t proven to be very good at predicting the future, certainly not as far as pinpointing the year their speculative events are supposed to happen.
For instance, Manhattan did not become one big maximum security prison in 1997 (“Escape from New York,” 1981); international wars were not replaced by violent sporting competitions in 2018 (“Rollerball,” 1975); and neither replicants nor off-world colonies existed in 2019 (“Blade Runner”).
Of course there’s still a chance that incidents will come to be that are portrayed in “Snowpiercer” (2013), set in 2031; “Minority Report” (2002), set in 2054; “Logan’s Run” (1976), set in 2274; and “Idiocracy” (2006), set in 2505. But for now let’s stick with our brand-new year of 2022, when the grim, dystopian 1973 film “Soylent Green” takes place. It’s a tale of overpopulation, hunger, poverty, environmental disaster, corporate wrongdoing, oppression of women, division of classes, and much more.
“Soylent Green” is based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel, “Make Room! Make Room!” (legend has it the title was changed when studio executives worried that audiences might confuse it with the by-then long-gone TV series “Make Room for Daddy”). It was directed by Richard Fleischer (“The Boston Strangler,” “Fantastic Voyage”) with a script by Stanley R. Greenberg (“The Missiles of October”), and it works as both an ominous warning and a big budget entertainment. Alas, it’s also as relevant today as it was when it premiered.
The novel depicted New York City in 1999 as a teeming metropolis with a population of 35,000,000 in a world that had gone to seed. Greenberg’s script — winner of a Nebula Award , the prestigious sci-fi prize, for best dramatic presentation — upped the populace to 40,000,000 in 2022. While book and film both keep a cautionary message at the center and weave in the thriller element of a detective trying to crack a murder case, the film, to the consternation of Harrison, diverged into, indeed became best known for, a story not in the book, of a grisly secret a government-run corporation was hiding from the public.
That part is about food, about the starving, impoverished masses and how they depend on the titular inexpensive staple of sustenance that’s supposedly derived from plankton in the oceans. There’s no mention of Soylent Green in the novel, just soylent steaks, made from soy beans and lentils. To say that the small Soylent Green wafers in the film are unsavory is an understatement. The secret of them, revealed in the final moments of dialogue, is repugnant (for those who haven’t seen it, it won’t be divulged here).
That’s the part of the film that, all these years later, people remember. Yet what resonates much more are the other issues — the environment, the filth, the breakdown of society, water shortages, the contrasts between the rich and the poor (the few rich have nice apartments and eat black market meat and vegetables; the plenteous poor sleep on tenement staircases, and you already know what they eat).
The book is very good. The film is better, with damning visuals of abandoned cars, riot control trucks, garbage piled in the streets, sanitation squads, hordes of forlorn people aimlessly shuffling around by day and by night vying for a sleeping spot in packed churches. But it’s some indelible closing lines of dialogue uttered by Charlton Heston that have earned “Soylent Green” its special place in science fiction cinema.
It’s mostly a depiction of misery, but it’s tempered by impressive production design and camerawork, and its innovative use of stunt extras in the exterior crowd scenes. There’s also a compelling performance from Heston as a cynical cop; a sympathetic one from Leigh Taylor-Young, who is referred to as “furniture,” a sexual object that comes with the lease in a wealthy person’s apartment; and a moving one by Edward G. Robinson as an aging intellectual who longs for the good old days.
And it’s brimming with messages.
In a 1984 essay, Harry Harrison wrote, “The film, like the book, shows what the world will be like if we continue in our insane manner to pollute and overpopulate Earth.”
In Fleischer’s 2003 DVD commentary track, he says, “The relevancy of the picture today stands up strongly against what is happening. It’s usually listed under science fiction but as far as I’m concerned, the fiction part isn’t valid anymore. We’re much closer to it than we realize, or want to be. It’s around the corner, unless we do something.”
In the 1973 press book, the film’s technical consultant, Frank R. Bowerman, president of the American Academy of Environmental Engineers, said, “I am of the firm conviction that uncontrolled population expansion and its concomitant pollution of the air and the seas is the gravest problem facing mankind. A polluted, overpopulated world must result in a physical deterioration of life as we know it. I believe that our sources of food are waning, that our seas are dying, that our air is being poisoned, that our mineral resources are being exploited far beyond the natural replacement process. There is still time to reverse the trend. With action. The alternative is that ‘Soylent Green’ will be more than a warning. It could become the epitaph for mankind’s gravestone.”
So how does the almost 50-year-old film do as far as guessing the state of 2022?
A few predictions were a bit off.
In 2022, detectives don’t wear jaunty caps as part of their uniforms, nor do police don football helmets before heading off to quell riots. America has not switched to the metric system (a disgruntled customer in the film claims she was only given a quarter of a kilo of Soylent Green at a market). There are no Riot Control trucks with front-end scoops to shovel up street protesters.
But some predictions were fairly accurate.
Members of the 1 percent live the good life, the middle class has diminished in size, the ranks of the poor are growing. Climate change causes endless heat waves. One wealthy character, about to turn up her air conditioning, says, “We’ll make it cold the way winter used to be.” Plankton in the oceans is dying. Homelessness is rampant. Many people in the streets are wearing masks. The first commercial video game — Computer Space (designed by Nolan Bushnell, who would go on to cofound Atari) — makes a cameo. A detective uses a cordless phone (a cellphone?) at a police call box.
Commencing with the introductory Chuck Braverman montage that zips from old agricultural America through cities being built, billowing smokestacks, jammed highways, congested sidewalks (and even a quick glimpse of the throng at Woodstock), right up to the bleak conclusion, it’s safe to say “Soylent Green” is prescient.
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Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.