Cannibalism, Charlton Heston, Climate Change, Dystopia, Environment, Escatology, Film, Movies, Soylent Green
Soylent Green is people!
Yeah we all know that.
Or do we?
I’m sorry, I meant to say; “spoiler alert!”
Anyway, yeah, Soylent Green is people, but the thing is that’s not really what the movie is about, is it? The Movie, Soylent Green, is about the death of the oceans. It’s about the end of life as we know it, or rather the moment in history just before the end of life as we know it. In that moment, as the food sources dwindle down to nothing, human beings begin to cannibalize each other on a scale never before seen in human history.
By ‘human beings’, I of course mean, the powers that be. It is a murky blend of corporate and government power that begins to market human flesh in the form of flavorless green protein wafers. Some might have found it odd to see cannibalism playing out under the auspices of capitalism. The former is a quintessentially primitive practice; the latter is all about of progress.
When Charleston Heston ends the film screaming “Soylent Green is people,” at least a little of the horror in that moment has always been the realization that the engines of progress have somehow brought humanity to embrace one of the greatest horrors of the primitive world.
It’s fiction, of course, but then again so is the story of progress, and so are a lot of those stories about ‘primitive’ cannibals.
Still it’s a little disconcerting to think that we are already in the timeline of Soylent Green. Yes, that’s right. Way back in 1973, 2018 was the very distant future, distant enough to project upon it all the dystopian horrors you might care to imagine.
For those who haven’t seen this old gem, the main plot has us following a police investigation in a world wracked by overcrowding, starvation, and of course food riots. People live on the streets or the staircases of apartment buildings, guarded by armed men, and…
…and seriously, SPOILER ALERT!!!
…and all these people rely upon one corporation (The Soylent Corporation) for food in the form of artificial wafers, color coded for different kinds of nutritional value. As the story begins to take shape, Soylent has just brought a new wafer into its product line, and yes, it’s green.
…but that’s not too important yet.
The main story-line has us following a murder mystery as Police Detective, Frank Thorn (played by Charlton Heston) investigates the murder of a wealthy and powerful man with the assistance of an aging police analyst named Sol Roth (played by Edward G. Robinson). It turned out the victim had in his possession a report, a large tomb purporting to be an oceanographic survey conducted by the Soylent Corporation over the years 2015-2019. Through careful study and corroboration with his own colleagues, Sol comes to realize the report contains a bombshell. The oceans are dying, irrevocably losing the capacity to produce even the algae used in Soylent wafers. This knowledge is what got the wealthy victim murdered in the first place, but not before he lost all hope and gave up living in the first place. The man, so we are told, was not himself in those final days.
Realizing himself that humanity is doomed, and nearing the end of his own life in this miserable world, Sol himself elects to ‘go home’, which is to say that he reports to a facility where people assist him in committing suicide, treating him to a lovely planetarium display featuring all the sights and sounds of nature as he drifts off into oblivion. Thorn arrives too late to save Sol, but not too late to force his way into the facility and watch the display while speaking with Sol in his last moments. Thorn is shocked by the sight of fields and trees, and animals, even as he learns about the end of the world’s food supply, such as it is. He learns of earth’s former glory even as he comes to grips with its coming end. It’s a maddening thought.
But what to do about it?
Thorn begins by trying to learn a little more about the operations at Soylent. After sneaking into the vehicles transporting Sol and the other dead away the facility, Heston comes to realize the bodies are being processed into the creation of green wafers, thus explaining how the Soylent corporation could come up with a brand new and improved food staple even as humanity’s food supply runs out once and for all. Thus, the infamous line, “Soylent Green is people.”
…oh yeah, there are fights and shootings along the way.
So, yes, Soylent Green is people, but there is a reason it’s people. It’s people because people are the only edible resource left.
Faced with diminishing resources, the powers that be have turned to their own population to reproduce their world, at least for whatever time they may be able to keep this up.
I remember watching this as a kid. Those final moments were pretty shocking back in the early seventies. I remember wondering what would happen in the wake of the credits Would people respond to Heston’s character and shut down the Soylent factories? And if they did, what next? This was a story about the end of everything, and the great crime that echoes through its final moments isn’t going to change that. Perhaps the cannibalism could be stopped, but not the disaster that produced it. It’s a maddening thought, the end of humanity, one next to which the crimes of the Soylent corporation seem to pale in comparison.
What shocks me about the whole story-line now is just how much it pales in comparison to the reality in which we live. We’ve already got our own Soylent report, a whole bunch of them in fact. Scientists have been delivering news quite comparable to that of the Soylent Oceanographic Survey for decades now. Most seem to hold out at least some hope that the disaster in question could be averted, but the scale of tragedy envisioned in climate change is quite comparable to that envisioned in the movie Soylent Green. What is the result? Life goes on.
Somehow, the possibility that all life as we know it could be about to end hasn’t generated sufficient public resolve even to attempt a serious solution. Some folks, such as our Tang-Colored Denialist-in-Chief, seem Hell-bent on making sure the whole disaster comes sooner rather than later, even hiding the facts by suppressing scientific findings on the subject, but the fact is that we are all implicated in this story-line. We are all contributing to the disaster. We can point to certain villains who don’t even want us thinking about this issue, much less attempting to tackle it, but in the end, it is humanity as a whole (or at least the more developed nations within it) that is proceeding full steam ahead.
It’s as though Heston’s cries didn’t even lead to an investigation of the Soylent factories. We all heard him, and then we just kept munching away at the quaint little green wafers that give us so much more energy than the red ones or the white ones and even the purple ones.
It’s one of the things that fascinates me about climate change. Somehow this real-world threat to life as we know it carries with it far less force than the comparable horrors of fiction. We can can appreciate the threat of The Thing or the Body-Snatchers. We can even hope that somehow Heston’s cries will bring an end to the Soylent factories. We can pull for the good guys to save the day in these stories, But when credible sources tell us that all life as we know it could come about as a result of our own actions, we ponder it while and then drive to the store.
Don’t get me wrong. Far from being an exception, I count myself among the worst offenders.
This is perhaps one of the interesting features of story-telling, that it enables us to envision solutions which would escape us in real life. Indeed, stories enable us to conceptualize problems we might not even acknowledge in real life. Our world may not contain vampires, for example, at least in the sense that we cannot find real creatures who suck the blood of others in order to sustain immortal life, but we can certainly find people whose success came at the expense of those around them. We can even find people who seem inexplicably to relish the experience of wasting other peoples time and energy in sundry ways. Deal with someone like that long enough, and you might just be tempted to see in vampire stories a real truth about real people. It wouldn’t be unfair to say of such people, I think, that they prosper, much as vampires do, by draining the life energy of those around them. In the real world, one resolves such problems (if possible) by getting such people out of your life (a peoplectomy as one of my old friends used to put it), but of course this is difficult and messy and the people in question simply move on to screw up other people’s lives when we finally get them out of our own. In a story? In story, you can drive a stake through the heart of the damned vampire. You can actually destroy them in the third act. Ironically enough, the vampires of stories may be easier to defeat than some of the bastards we meet in real life. We can’t drive a stake through the heart of toxic people in the real world, but we an sure as Hell do it with the ones we find in our stories.
Perhaps it is the same with the prospect of an anthropogenic apocalypse. It really is a systemic problem. We all know what we do that contributes to that problem, but refraining as an individual from consumption of oil products is like taking your own drop out of a crashing wave. Well it would be if you could even do it, but most of us really can’t. Most of us couldn’t even eat were it not for the fossil fuels that bring our future meals to the grocery stores. Even if we walked to our breakfast cereal, we would find that or cereal flew and trucked its way to us. The problem is simply too big for any one person to resolve on his own. But what are the odds of finding a collective resolution to the matter? The horror is beyond our reckoning. So, we enjoy zombie stories or watch Bruce Willis save us from an asteroid. (That was him, wasn’t it?) We can hope Will Smith’s blood will save mankind or we can grip our seats and wait quietly in the hopes that John Krasinski figures out how to beat those new sound-killing creatures. The end of the world is just easier to beat in a story.
…except, in Soylent Green, it really isn’t.
Perhaps, this is because the source of the apocalypse in Soylent Green isn’t a monster; it’s us, which is a little too close to the realities already taking shape in 1973. (They are more real now.) Either way the real tragedy coming for those characters is still coming for them regardless of the results of Thorn’s final revelation. This horror is closer to that of Cthulhu than it is to the simple zombies or mean-spirited sound-sniffers. This horror is a certain doom. The people in Thorn’s world may or may not be able to stop Soylent from serving other folks up in bite-sized snacks, but (at least in the terms of the story-line) they are not going to solve the problem of hunger. They are all doomed.
To appreciate the doom one has only to consider the death of Sol at the end of the film. This, it turns out, would be the last scene ever shot with Edward G. Robinson. He died of cancer a short time after shooting wrapped on Soylent Green, giving his death scene an odd real-life significance for those involved in production. Watching this film, or any other apocalyptic fantasy, I can’t help wondering if humanity itself doesn’t find itself experiencing a similar sort of parallelism. We can appreciate all manner of stories about the end of life as we know it, but more and more, I at least watch such stories with a faint sense that they are a little less far fetched than I’d prefer to imagine.
We can wonder if the characters in Soylent Green will heed Thorn’s warning.
But that is missing the point.