To celebrate Earth Day, we'll be running some environmentally-themed pieces. I got excited when the topic came up because it meant I could talk about one of my favorite sci-fi flicks, 1972's Soylent Green. I think it's safe to say that everyone knows what the secret ingredient in Soylent Green is at this point, but this glimpse into the future (it's set in 2022) turned out to be amazingly prescient in some regards, highlighting many of the environmental issues we're currently facing. Charlton Heston stars (sporting some killer duds) as Robert Thorn, a cop who becomes embroiled in a case much larger than it first appears. What looks like a simple death transforms into something bigger and more ominous. As events progress, Heston's character morphs into a futuristic version of Al Gore, Ralph Nader, and Morgan Spurlock -- with a badge. Sure, the technology looks dated, but the story is reminiscent of the best sci-fi, presenting fantastical ideas and concepts that have a direct link to our everyday lives. You can learn a lot from Soylent Green. Jump past the break and I'll share five things the film has taught me.
Humans: The New Pigeon
You think it's hard to find a decent apartment in NYC now ... in the world of 2022, rampant overpopulation has pushed humanity to the brink of disaster (obviously "The end of the world is nigh, let's have sex," really worked in this movie). Renewable resources have all but vanished, water is a luxury (meaning the future is a pretty smelly place since it seems unlikely that people are showering), and people are stacked up like firewood because there isn't enough living space. If these oh-so-subtle hints don't convince you that overpopulation is a bad thing, then maybe my next point will ...
Soylent Green is ... ewww!
Perhaps the biggest problem with the whole overpopulation scenario Soylent Green throws at us is there's no longer enough food to go around -- there's no food at all, really. At least not as we know it. Instead, people are chowing down on the various Soylent products offered up by a megacorporation (and this was before most veggies became concerned with genetically modified ingredients). Charlton Heston becomes caught up in a case where he eventually comes to the horrifying conclusion that Soylent Green is made up of people. So, in the year 2022, we're all cannibals. Oh, it's not like Cannibal Holocaust or anything, but yeah -- we're eating people. I'm not sure why Heston is so shocked by this revelation -- he'd chewed on scenery for years, so it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to imagine him sitting down to a heaping helping of human rump roast. Fantasy project: make a movie where I force a zombie Heston to eat Smart Dogs and he really likes them!
Another nightmare scenario caused by the population explosion featured in Soylent Green deals with weather changes caused by the greenhouse effect. In the film, NYC is enduring a record heatwave, one that lasts well over a year. Today, a film using that as a plot device wouldn't be anything particularly unique, but back in 1972 this was cutting edge stuff! The film may have missed the mark on the whole videogame market (they expect me to believe that in 2022 people are still playing Computer Space!?), but they got the science-y stuff right. The reason for all this greenhouse gas seems pretty obvious to me, too -- huge numbers of people subsisting solely on processed rations of human meat seems like a recipe for gassiness. I'm not sure even Beano could help them.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Regurgitate
Everywhere you look today you see things extolling the virtues of recycling. That really wasn't the case when Soylent Green debuted. Back then, most people tossed everything in the trash and let the dump take care of it. The dangers of that attitude are highlighted in the film, where trees are so scarce that books are no longer made with paper (I bet Amazon was behind this somehow) and other things we take for granted have been gone for so long that the characters never knew them in the first place. The film obviously promotes the virtues of recycling by using dead humans as a food source -- it's like The Lion King's circle of life in action, minus the musical numbers -- but we probably don't have to worry about that ever coming to pass in reality. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of people looking forward to contracting Kuru, a neurodegenerative disorder that is caused by eating human flesh. Go figure. It sounds delightful.
Cheery Reminder: Death is Inevitable
Perhaps the most poignant lesson Soylent Green teaches us is that death is inevitable -- a point driven home in the gleefully melodramatic, yet still touching, death scene of Thorn's friend Sol. Edward G. Robinson played the part, in what turned out to be his last onscreen performance. Not only did the sequence drive home the point that death was something we're all going to face eventually, but it showcases one more area where Soylent Green was strangely prophetic -- the giant theater screen Sol watches as he fades away looks like an early version of IMAX. No, he's not watching Avatar. In the film, images of nature are forbidden from public viewing and only viewable during a ritual to send off the dying (at an assisted suicide facility). Heston cried real tears here, reportedly because he knew his friend Robinson was dying of cancer. It definitely gives the scene a sense of gravitas and keeps it from spiraling into pure camp.