Why settle for tacos when Tuesday can be Soylent Green Day? Far more nutritious than Soylent Red or Yellow, the green stuff is made with a secret ingredient that makes it a real delicacy. Of course the line “Soylent Green is people” is now an insta-spoiler meme and trope. But when Charlton Heston first uttered that anguished warning, it might as well have been a supermarket can-can sale promotion. Store shops in the 1973 science fiction classic Soylent Green were so mobbed on Tuesdays that riots started every week in this dystopian vision of 2022.
The historical montage which opens Soylent Green, based on real photographs from the 20th century, shows how industry and population colluded to form a dystopian future where too many people struggle for too little food, gag at the air, and wear masks on a daily basis. The face covering in the montage actually increases exponentially as the 20th century tumbles past into our own modern nightmares. Sludge and filth cover the perimeter of human existence in Soylent Green, and plague and famine eat humanity out from the inside. You can see the opening montage here:
There was a time once, says Sol Roth, played by the elegant Edward G. Robinson in his last cinematic role, when the world was beautiful. People were always rotten, but the world was beautiful. Soylent Green was set in the year 2022, and saw that beauty become faded, and the people jaded. While many of the predictions laid out in the opening montage have borne themselves out, other predictive promises have not been filled.
Directed by Richard Fleischer with a screenplay by Stanley R. Greenberg, Soylent Green was based on Harry Harrison’s 1968 novel Harry Harrison Make Room! Make Room!, which is set in 1999. Soylent Green assumes the earth would be too overpopulated for sustainable coexistence by 2022, and put the world’s population calculations at a then-frightening 7 billion people. We hit 7.9 billion in 2021, so hurray for our team, as we are already ahead of the curve!
Heston, who saw man as merely a superior monkeys’ uncle in 1968’s Planet of the Apes, and the earth go zombie in The Omega Man in 1971, had real concerns about overpopulation when he commissioned the script for Soylent Green. During the 1970s, fears of a “population bomb” were rampant, and warnings came from such disparate sources as Public Broadcasting System specials and songs like Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath.” It was a common belief humanity was breeding too much for the natural world’s ability to sustain it.
While Soylent Green underestimated the overall world population of today, it did inflate some of its numbers. In the beginning of the film, we learn that New York City’s population is 40,000,000. Manhattan island might sink under the extra weight before this could happen. But the nightmare was also averted in the interim as fertility rates plummeted on a global scale, and China issued its national one-child policy to counter the growing birth rates which the world found so frightening at the time. Some of the eastern hemisphere is currently facing an aging population crisis because of the efforts to curb youthful sexual enthusiasm.
Soylent Green was one of the first mainstream films to bring climate change into public consciousness. Heston’s character, NYPD detective Thorn, explains how a year-long heatwave created by the greenhouse effect poisoned the water, polluted the soil, decimated plant and animal life, and burned everything up. Only the wealthy can get their hands on real food, especially produce. It is, however, available on the black market. A jar of strawberry jam costs $150. In one very effective scene, Thorn and Sol savor a thin steak, an apple to the core, and a leaf of lettuce.
The food shortage prediction is actually true, depending on economic and geographic factors. Mass production means we make enough foodstuff to feed the entire world population, with a surplus. Yet some people starve and others suffer from obesity. The one-percenters don’t shoot themselves off into the stratosphere in the film’s 2022; they isolate themselves in luxury penthouses.
In the film, Det. Thorn is investigating the murder of Soylent Corporation executive William R. Simonson. The dead man’s safe place includes not only the most deliciously decadent edibles, but it has the latest in post-post-modern “furniture.” That’s what sex slaves to the wealthy are called in the film; and the ever-dazed, tarot card-reading Shirl, played by Leigh Taylor-Young, could service parties in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (or the most insane conspiracy theories of QAnon followers today).
Soylent is one giant corporation which has the power to exacerbate global hunger. It is like Amazon, Wal-Mart and probably Tyson Chicken combined, and the top earners live in protective custodial-ship to the starving masses. Half of New York City is unemployed and living in poverty, and when they take to the streets, it is only slightly more frightening than the militaristic police response to protestors we’ve seen in the past few years. The reason it is more frightening is artistic. It is because the scenario looks so commonplace. The cops don’t mount tanks and urban assault vehicles in Soylent Green. They don’t scoot activists into unmarked minivans. They come in with dump trucks and bulldozers and ship them off in “scoops.”
While all of the footage and futuristic illusions were born of early 1970s cinematic imagination, some of the technological advances are surprisingly familiar. The video game Shirl is playing when we first see her looks remarkably like the Asteroid game Atari would introduce in 1979.
While we don’t have government-sponsored euthanasia clinics, the immersive cinema of the 20-minute nature video Sol drifts off to before being ground up in Soylent Green can be had today in HD, 3D, and 5G. Immersive cinema has gotten smaller, not bigger. The earth, however, still turns on its own axis.
The scene where Tim Van Patten’s character walks Robinson off to his final resting place was the very last scene the legendary actor would ever shoot. He died hours after filming it, according to Patten, of bladder cancer, age 79. His greatest regret was the loss of the world’s natural beauty.
Long shots and aerial views in Soylent Green show a dense cover of smog, burning ash, and other visible airborne contaminants as Hollywood lost its golden sheen in the ‘70s. Fifty years later, the U.S. still gets more than 80 percent of its energy from fossil fuels, and on a clear day, you can see there have been less clear days. In the movie, smoke from forest fires is visible from miles away. The footage from 1973 echoes news clips we currently see every year as fires burn longer and larger in the American west. Science is still ignored. Conglomerates still profit from banking on the promise of soot yet to come.
At the start of the murder investigation in the film, Heston’s detective comes across the top-secret “Soylent Oceanographic Survey Report: 2015 to 2019,” which finds the oceans are dying. This is the reason Soylent steaks are branded with new colors. The main ingredient of Soylent Green is plankton, just like Mr. Krabs’ Krabby Patties on SpongeBob SquarePants. This is sadly coming to pass. Acidification in the ocean is endangering plankton, putting all fish life in peril.
The ominous words “Soylent Green” have appeared on the menu in The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park. It has become synonymous with the darkest solution to world hunger, in a world which averted the most dire predictions. This is because the prognosticators behind Soylent Green did not take into account the tech boom, and other advances.
A software engineer named Rob Rhinehart did indeed invent a protein bar called Soylent in 2013, but it didn’t have the green. It was taken off the market three years later. Agricultural technology will make mass-produced lab-grown food available within a generation. It is important to note, however, that while the world has become politically cannibalistic, there are no government-sponsored human meat rendering plants currently waiting for suicidal volunteers.
But it’s 2022, where can I get Soylent Green now?
Believe it or not, a version of Soylent Green is readily available. You can get Soylent Green at D’Agostino or Whole Foods. Harrison’s book describes Soylent steaks as a meat substitute made from soy and lentils. This has not only become true blue American cuisine, it is a burgeoning business. The organic food market yields $61 billion in green every year, and with high-tech domestic vegetable gardens available to order online, you can make Soylent Green at home. You might not want to call it that though. People will think it is people, and people who eat people are not the luckiest people in the world.