Why Soylent Green is More Relevant Now Than Ever

Background becomes foreground in Richard Fleischer’s eco-dystopian gem, Soylent Green.

Here in the 21st century, with climate change making itself apparent in assorted hilarious ways on a daily basis, a world population cresting over seven billion, devastating global pandemics a constant threat, poisons in the air, water, and food supplies merely a given, and politicians insisting it’s all a myth, the time seems right for a remake of the eco-dystopian classic, Soylent Green. And in fact assorted producers have been trying to get one off the ground for years, so far without too much luck.

Maybe it’s for the best. Maybe a reboot simply isn’t necessary.

The growth of the environmental movement of the ‘70s was accompanied by a slew of eco-disaster films, from Grass and Frogs to Prophecy and Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, all of them out to hammer home an ugly picture of what might be in store for us if we don’t wise up but quick. But none were as immediate, detailed, realistic or relevant as Richard Fleischer’s 1973 film, and none presented quite so bleak a picture of the human misery that could result from unchecked overpopulation, global warming, and food and energy shortages. The world Fleischer envisioned on the MGM backlot was one you could almost smell.

NYC in Soylent Green

In the NYC of 2022 (a mere three years from right now) the temperature never drops below a humid 90. Over 20 million people are out of work. There is no middle class. The poor sleep where they can and join together for the daily food riots. The rich live in high-rise furnished apartments that come complete with young women. The apartments also feature unheard-of amenities like hot water and free-flowing electricity, and the people who can afford them can also afford black market luxuries like eggs, jam, and the rarest of all, real beef.

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Actually, this is starting to sound an awful lot like the NYC of today.

The cops are as corrupt as ever, and the government is merely a small branch of the Soylent Corporation—the international conglomerate that controls two-thirds of the world’s food supply by manufacturing cheap crackers out of chemicals and vegetable matter. There are no trees, there are no animals, water is rationed, and the city averages about a hundred murders a day.

Now, there is a plot here, as a cop named Thorn (Charlton Heston) attempts to investigate the brutal murder of a wealthy industrialist (Joseph Cotten), who turns out to be a member of the Soylent Corp.’s board of directors. It’s not a very interesting story, and apart from where it eventually leads, it barely matters. More interesting is Thorn’s relationship with his roommate, an aging police researcher named Sol (Edward G. Robinson in his final role), who remembers what things used to be like. In fact most of the people in the film with the exception of Thorn seem to remember what things used to be like—it’s just that they don’t care all that much.

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This was Robinson’s 101st film, in a career that stretched back to the late ‘20s. He knew he had terminal cancer when he took the role, but never breathed a word of it to anyone on the cast or crew. He was also nearly completely deaf by this point, and each of his scenes required a few practice takes before he could get the rhythm and timing down and know when he was supposed to speak his lines. It took some doing, but you see his performance on the screen and it’s simply one last, extraordinary bit of evidence that he was one of the finest actors this country’s ever known. Certainly better than Charlton Heston, Brock Peters, or Chuck Connors.

(In another little bit of Soylent Green trivia, the computer game in Joseph Cotten’s apartment,“Computer Space,” was actually the first coin-operated video game ever made. The man who designed  it went on to design Pong and founded Atari. But that’s irrelevant.)

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Soylent Green was based on Make Room! Make Room!, a cautionary 1966 science fiction novel written by Harry Harrison (who died in 2012). Harrison’s novel, however, contained no cannibalism, had no furniture women, had no suicide parlors or chase scenes. Very little of the book’s plot is reflected in the plot of the film.  

In fact, there was no Soylent Green in the book upon which Soylent Green is based, and as a result no classic final line. All those elements were concocted by the film’s producers (who like the rest of us wanted more cannibalism and sex) and screenwriter Stanley R. Greenberg. But that’s okay. After all, who remembers the plot of the movie, apart from a few scattered scenes (and of course the last line)? Even Harry Harrison thought that was okay, as annoying as he found the radical changes to his novel (though he stopped short of admitting that Soylent Green was an infinitely better title).

Food Riot scene in Soylent Green

Because what we remember is not the story so much, but the atmosphere and the details—the humid green haze hanging over the city, the food riots, the unending squalor,  the homeless sleeping on stoops and crowded into the church. Thanks to Fleischer and his production design team, we remember the images of a filthy, overpopulated, and starving world. It was an example of what Harrison called background becoming foreground, when what we take away from a film is not the plot, but an overall image of the world in which the plot plays itself out. Even if few people remember that whole “murder investigation” business a week after seeing the movie, they’ll remember the corpses on the conveyor belt, and the bulldozers scooping up rioters.

read more: The Best Dystopian Movies and TV Shows

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After his experience with MGM, Harrison vowed he would never again let one of his novels be turned into a major Hollywood film, and he never did. It’s too bad. Again thanks to Fleischer and the production designers, over 40 years after its release, Soylent Green has not aged. It’s still as relevant, as disturbing, and as contemporary now as it was in 1973—if not more so (clunky old video games aside). That’s why a reboot might well be irrelevant.

We’re still on the same track now as we were then, and for decades the experts have been telling us that unless we do something drastic, the world Fleischer envisioned may well remain an accurate portrait of the world we’ll be living in before too long. Unless of course we end up with a Smog Monster to contend with instead.