Tuesday is “Soylent Green” Day
Daniel M. Kimmel
The term “spoiler alert” supposedly was first used in 1982, in a discussion on Usenet about “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” In the decades since there are people who avoid discussions until they’ve seen the work in question and others who demand that they be coddled and protected from information even for works that have long been absorbed by the popular culture. You may know what Rosebud is without ever having seen “Citizen Kane” (1941), who killed Marion Crane without seeing “Psycho” (1960), or the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader despite ignorance of “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980). This essay will “reveal” the mystery at the heart of “Soylent Green” (1973). If you are one of those hypersensitive souls who has not yet seen the movie and feel you are entitled to be protected from “spoilers,” you need to turn the page. Now.
“Soylent Green” was the final film at this year’s 24-Hour Science Fiction Movie Marathon, held Feb. 16-17 at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Massachusetts. It was the 45th annual marathon, coming at the end of a weeklong festival of new films. (For further information go to https://www.bostonscifi.com/.) It provided the opportunity to revisit a movie whose closing line has been referenced on “The Simpsons,” “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” “Lois and Clark,” and many other places. After nearly half a century, it is so well known that it made the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotes.
So let’s reconsider “Soylent Green.” The movie is set in the far future… of 2022. Back in 1973 that was the far future, but today not so much. Given what the film presumes about the years in between, it gets some things right and some things very wrong. To work, we need to push it farther into the future. (The movie is based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, a dystopian tale about over-population. Harrison set his story in 1999.)
The story is set in motion with the murder/assassination of William Simonson (veteran actor Joseph Cotten in a cameo role). When the killer enters his apartment, Simonson offers no resistance. He declares he is no longer a reliable supporter of the status quo and accepts his fate. This sets up the central mystery of the film: why was he killed, and why did he react the way he did?
The police detective on the case, Thorn (Charlton Heston), is hardly a hero. While investigating the crime scene he doesn’t search for evidence. He gathers swag. He takes a pillowcase and uses it to carry off a bottle of bourbon, towels, soap, and fresh food including a piece of beef. All of these things are items reserved for the elite. Such corruption is expected. Both his boss (Brock Peters) and the disposal squad that comes to claim the body expect to get their piece of the action.
Thorn lives in a cramped apartment with a roommate, a college professor turned police researcher named Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson in his final role) who remembers the way the world used to be. Thorn is one of the lucky ones, having a job and a home. To get to work he has to climb over people who sleep on staircases and in other public areas. In this world, the common people have to stand in line to get food and water, with the police routinely called in to impose order. Much of the food is produced by the Soylent Corporation (presumably derived from soy beans and lentils), in the form of red and yellow crackers. Their new product – Soylent Green – is both popular and scarce and is thus available only one day a week.
In some ways the movie is, sadly, timelier than ever. While the population of New York City is 8.6 million and not the 40 million cited in the film, homelessness remains a major urban problem, and the oppressive heat and other environmental changes are not far afield from current headlines. While the division between the privileged 1% and everyone else may not be as extreme as depicted in the film, the contrast resonates. The time frame is off largely because the past that Sol remembers, and that Thorn does not, still exists today. Were we to move the story another half-century into the future that dystopian threat might seem as credible as it did in 1973.
Similarly, with most of the population dealing with the same issues of scarcity, various forms of bigotry seem to have disappeared. Sol is clearly Jewish – even toasting Thorn with a “L’chaim!” when sharing the bourbon that the cop has brought home. Thorn’s boss is black, as is Martha (Paula Kelly), who lives with Simonson’s bodyguard (Chuck Connors). It’s implied that Charles (Leonard Stone), the concierge at Simonson’s elite apartment building, is gay. The one glaring exception to this is in the treatment of women. In the #metoo era, the character of Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young) seems like something out of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Shirl is referred to as part of the “furniture” in Simonson’s apartment. While he treats her kindly, she will be offered to the apartment’s new tenant after Simonson’s death. Thorn also treats her as part of the swag he’s entitled to take and use. In one scene she’s invited the other “furniture” in the building to a party and when this is discovered by Charles he brutally beats two of the women. If the intent was satiric it needed to be further developed. As is, most of the women in the film are treated as commodities, both by the characters and the filmmakers.
Returning to the central mystery, we learn that before his death Simonson went to church where he made confession. When Thorn tracks down the priest (Lincoln Kilpatrick) who heard the confession, the man is so distraught by what he has learned that he’s barely coherent. He’s later murdered as yet another loose end.
It is in the film’s third act where we get the big reveal and are left with a lack of resolution that may reflect the cynicism of the Vietnam/Watergate era when the film was made and feels even more appropriate today. Sol’s research has led him to discover the secret that led Simonson to his confession and death and makes him decide to “go home,” a euphemism for publicly supported suicide. It is an emotional sequence in which he gets to see images of the natural world he remembered as he succumbs to the lethal drugs that have been administered. Before he dies, he gets to tell Thorn what he has discovered.
Thorn follows the bodies from the suicide center to the waste disposal plant where he learns that human remains are being recycled into soylent green. It is, oddly, the least convincing sequence in a movie that has been building up to it. From the ease in which Thorn gets into the facility to the discreetly shrouded bodies dumped into the mix, there are obvious questions that go unanswered. Are the sheets wrapped around the bodies also part of soylent green? If the content of the product is such a secret that people are murdered to prevent it being revealed why is the security at the plant so lax? And what happens after the film’s end?
Thorn is tracked down to the church where Simonson made his confession, taking out many of his trackers, but being wounded himself. He is rescued at the last moment where he reveals what, by now, has become obvious, “Soylent Green is people!” And then what? The film ends there, closing with a recapitulation of the nature footage that accompanied Sol to his death. It is clearly a warning, as with most dystopian fiction, that this is a future which we must avoid at all costs.
Yet “Soylent Green” offers us little in the way of hope. When we last see Shirl, she is being interviewed by the unit’s new tenant, who makes clear that he will want her to be available for “fun,” and when she speaks to Thorn – to whom she has developed feelings – he tells her that it’s good she has a secure future. His future is less certain, given that the Soylent Corporation has shown itself able to kill those who would reveal the source of its product. He may be rescued at the end, but for how long?
The movie’s ultimate hero isn’t Thorn, but Sol who is skeptical about humanity but knows the world can be better than it is and chooses to leave it on his own terms. His repeated toast of “L’chaim” – To Life – is the real message. We can and must do better. A world where we consume ourselves is not worth saving.
About the author: Daniel M. Kimmel is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award, given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He was a finalist for a Hugo Award for Jar Jar Binks Must Die… and other observations about science fiction movies and for the Compton Crook Award for best first novel for Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood, and the Bartender’s Guide. In addition to short stories, he is the author of Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel and Father of the Bride of Frankenstein.