What interests me most about Soylent Green is that it is so damned good, yet the big surprise- the mystery we see unfolding throughout the film – that is revealed at the end is as underwhelming as the rest of the movie is good. Honestly, 40 billion people on the planet, who doesn’t expect to be eating people?
Maybe it’s because I’ve lived my whole life knowing how the film pans out or because the idea isn’t entirely original or unexpected, but it doesn’t seem like a big deal.Anthony Burgess’ Wanting Seed explores the same topic explaining how this is just what we should expect as a result of society growing without check or balance. When the population cycles high, people eat people, when it cycles low, homosexuality and war are glorified. The Wanting Seed is an excellent window into the reality of moral relativism, how we are destined to embrace the ideas that allow us to survive no matter how horrible they would seem otherwise.
The ideas that I do find appealing in Soylent Green are those about inequity in society, rationing of food by the government, riot control that steps clearly into the realm of murder and socially accepted euthanasia.
Society is divided into the haves and the have-nots (sound familiar?). Those with money live in high rise apartments surrounded my security and relative luxury, while the have-nots steal, kill and beg for food on the streets below.
Not quite the division of humanity found in Metropolis, but more of a realistic duality. The rich are well aware of the poor and manipulate their world to prevent ever coming into contact with the (literally) unwashed masses. The poor really are unaware of the rich. They may see the walls and fences, but there simply is no time to worry about fairness when every day is a struggle to survive and men like Heston’s character go to work with bullets in their legs out of fear that they lose their jobs and descent to the lowest rung.
Food has been made for years by the Soylent company. They harvest plankton from the seas and convert it into unappetizing food units that look something like cheese-its. Soylent comes in different colors that indicate their balance of nutrients, but the most prized is the new, high protein Soylent Green. Yes, of course it’s people, but aren’t you hungry? It doesn’t look like people, it’s not even really meat at all, just dehydrated crisps of human protein. Yum.
Soylent is made by a government contractor (let’s assume it’s what Halliburton is called in the future), under strict secrecy and high guard. Not any one who even works in the Solyent company knows what is going on. Half the company serves as a human waste disposal (I mean the humans, not their waste), the other half makes food. No connection there, no, sir!
When food is delivered, it is dropped off by the contractor and then effectively managed by the riot police who keep order in the lines and break out the batons and bulldozers when supplies run out. Again, how can we be surprised by this? Food is the one thing that people must riot over when there isn’t enough. Being beat down and repressed is one thing, but not eating is another thing all together.
Finally, the #1 most interesting topic, euthanasia. The right to walk into a clinic and exchange your life for 20 minutes of peace. The only thing missing was one last pepperoni pizza before laying back and drifting away to the music. I remember reading a Heinlein book as a kid that started out with an older man deciding to end his life in a manner not unlike that described here, but for the life of me I can’t figure out which one. The idea of having complete control over one’s own life is a common one in Heinlein novels littered with libertarian ideals of a life lived completely free from government entanglement.
The power of Soylent Green is its combination of a futuristic dystopia plagued with overpopulation, pollution and hunger combined with the human drama of a man learning the truth about his society. Heston’s character never knew the way life used to be, the beauty of nature or what it’s like to not feel hunger. Worse, we see that he lives in constant fear of tumbling over the precipice of ’employed’ into an even more loathsome existence.
Even in a dystopia, there’s always someone worse off than you.