SOYLENT GREEN (1973)
IMDB Synopsis: In the world ravaged by the greenhouse effect and overpopulation, an NYPD detective investigates the murder of a big company CEO.
Director: Richard Fleischer
Writers: Stanley R. Greenberg (screenplay), Harry Harrison (novel) Stars: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young
The on-screen preamble for Soylent Green:
“In 2022, Earth is overpopulated and totally polluted; the natural re sources have been exhausted and the nourishment of the population is provided by Soylent Industries, a company that makes a food consisting of plankton from the oceans.”
And here is a summary of Late Capitalism:
In 2021, Earth is overpopulating and polluted; natural resources are dwindling, 1 on 8 people on the planet go hungry every day, food monopolies like Monsanto control the means of production for 8-% of farm ing activities, scientist are exploring cricket protein and kelp to keep up with the growing population’s nutrition requirements.
In 1966, author Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room! Make Room! (the basis for the movie) took a swing for what 2022 might look like. He just about nailed it.
Soylent Green shows a very realistic future. From sexism, to soy-based food production, to police states, and privatized everything, we’re head ed in a very Soylent direction. Soy and Lentils for all!
When the movie opens, Edward G. Robson (Sol) is remembering the old days while Charlton Heston (Detective Thorn) eats a human. The point of the movie is that cannibalism is taboo, but cannibalism happens, it’s how people survive, people fight over green crackers made of human
flesh. The world (or at least NYC) has turned to cannibalism as a way to feed the masses, and the corportacracy that is Harrison’s version of Late Capitalism controls the meat grinders. Citizen uprising? Great . Bring in the dozer, there’s a food shortage anyway. The problem becomes the solution. This is, of course, the way capitalism works. It’s victim and judge paradox described by Theodore Adorno, 1951 Minima Moralia: Reflections for Damaged Life:
“The Culture Industry piously claims to be guided by its customers and to supply them with what they ask for. But while assiduously dismissing any thought of its own autonomy and proclaiming its victims its judges, it outdoes, in its veiled autocracy, all the excesses of autonomous art. The culture industry not so much adapts to the reactions of its customer as it counterfeits them. “
So, while Heston chomps on a people-biscuits, Sol fills us in: “When I was a kid, food was food, before our scientific magicians poisoned the water, polluted the soil, decimated plant and animal life. Why in my day you cold buy meat anywhere. Eggs they had, real butter, fresh lettuce in the stores…how can anything survive in a climate like this.”
This reminds me of a story of my son. Charlie was about six and was eating some chicken nuggets – one of his two food groups. He turned to me and said “wouldn’t it be funny if chicken came from chickens?” The next day we went to a farm and planted a vegetable garden.
In this memory, I am Sol and he is Heston.
In that same scene with Sol and Heston, the lights flicker and Sol hops on a stationary bicycle to create some juice. We see this dream today often.
How can anything survive in a climate like this? It does sound a lot like Late Capitalism. Comedian Bill Maher pulls this into the modern content with this line: “Twenty years from now, when your kids ask you over a glass of soylent green, ‘What did you do during the Trump years, daddy?’ you don’t want your answer to be, ‘My job was to go on TV and pretend Trump didn’t say what everybody just heard him say,’” the host continued. “That is an enabler and that word is not a compliment.” Maher is an idiot, but he’s on to something too.
Over the radio, we hear an ad for Soylent Corp, promoting Soylent Red and Yellow, a high protein food replacement, and the new sea-algae products. The announcer reminds us “Tuesday is Solent Green day” much in the same way that in 1969 Prince spaghetti reminded us “Wednesday is Prince spaghetti day.”
And, in the same way that the FDA reminded us during World War I about “Meatless Mondays,” a phenomena that has returned under the guise of a Climate Change mitigation strategy thanks to Treehugger.com founder Graham Hill who proclaimed in 2010 that he would become a weekday vegetarian, only eating meat on weekends. None of this is to be confused with Taco Tuesdays, or maybe it is.
Bundle depression era austerity sentiments, government rationing (Food will Win the War!), global hunger as meme (First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, indeed) to a Global Warming msitigation, and ol’ grab-em-by-the pussy-Trumpism, and you have Soylent Green. Objectification of women, a police state, rule by the wealthy, global hunger? Welcome to Late Capitalism four years early.
The bourgeoisie in Soylent Green get vegetables, booze, beef and furniture. And, by furniture, I mean women. It’s as if the Playboy Grotto was relocated to Trump Tower, – women come with the place. In Soylent Green, women are called Furniture. Charlton Heston basically rapes Shirl, the lead female in Soylent Green. And, by “basically,” I mean raped by his cold dead hands. But in classic Hollywood (and Luke and Laura a’
la General Hospital) fashion, they quickly fall in a kind of love, so it’s all cool. Soon after, when asked about Shirl by his police chief, Heston cups his hands to make the universal sign for two boobs, and says she’s “like grapefruit.” Chief Thatcher has a great post-fruit world comeback, “you never saw a grapefruit.” Burn.
In one seen after a hot shower in some kind of Spinal Tap come back tour plastic cocoon pod-thing, Heston becomes a good guy and defends a grotto full of women (referred to in the movie casting notes as Furniture Girls) from a glorified bellhop named Charles. Charles is punching women willy-nilly. Heston goes from rapist to Good Guy with a Gun in seconds. I think this is supposed to humanize Heston, but he is an asshole. When he brings Sol lettuce (that he stole from a dead rich guys apartment while on duty), Sol relishes it. Heston shrugs as if it is noth ing special. This is supposed to point out that the elder, Sol, remembers some of the good times before environmental collapse, and Heston can’t. But he just looks like an asshole. As proof, there are more scenes of him punching women.
Another rich man eventually rents the apartment that Shirl belongs to. He likes to entertain his friends, 3 or 4 night a week asks, “are you fun?” which is code for “we’re going to gang rape you.” There is no middle class in Soylent Green. I point this out because just as SciFi writers like Harrison are pretty good at depicting a possible path for the Earth’s environment, we should also heed their warnings on our more social projections.
And, because if you don’t think the gender equality isn’t a major part of sustainability (or misogyny isn’t partially to blame for Climate Change), you’ve been eating too much moss.
And, I’d be remiss, if I don’t call back to the closing lines of Heston – “People! Soylent Green is People!” Well, so is sustainability. Sustainability is not about saving the planet. It’s about saving the people.