Peak Oil Flicks

Soylent Green (1973)


Admit it: you love Soylent Green. Whenever it appears on any late-night television schedule, fans of thecult film have to watch. Not because it’s a good movie. With its cheesy “futuristic” music and leading man Charlton Heston’s faux tough-guy dialogue, Soylent Greenis an easy target to lampoon. But its impact – and its message – continues to be surprisingly durable.

The year is 2022. Scarcity – of every resource – is a fixed fact of life for the 40 million souls trapped in New York City. The film makes no direct reference to oil orother fuels, but it’s clear that whatever resources are left belong to the politicians and other privileged people. The police patrol and control the mobs of hungry, desperate people. With no gas, cars are permanently marooned in the streets and, with little housing available, become de facto living quarters for whole families.

Soylent Corporation controls the global food supply, manufacturing Soylent Yellow, compressed soylent-lentil wafers that constitute the world’s major dietary staple. Fresh fruit, meat and vegetables are distant memories. The corporation is currently touting NEW Soylent Green, made from high-energy “plankton gathered from the oceans of the world.” Never mind that the oceans themselves are off limits to ordinary citizens.

People line up in endless queues for their weekly soylent ration. In the recurrent riots that ensue when supplies run out, the city Waste Disposal Units – huge vans with scoopers – lift up the mobs and speed them away to – where? The destination, and their fate, reveals the central mystery of the film.

Charlton Heston plays Thorn, a police detective investigating the death of William R.Simonson, a high-level Soylent executive. He shares a decrepit apartment with Sol Roth, who is drawn into Thorn’s investigation. Sol, played by the great Edward G. Robinson, is a link to the past, a learned man and one of the few with first-hand experience of the world as it used to be – verdant, beautiful and giving. Robinson, in his last movie role, provides the movie’s soul, as well as the film’s tiny allotment of humor.

At the time of Soylent’s release, sci-fi movies were the most dispensable of Hollywood film genres, with risible scripts and “aliens” outfitted in lamé jumpsuits. (It is perhaps no accident that this is the decade that unleashed both the Village People and the leisure suit on an unsuspecting public.) But the 1970s also were a turbulent time of anti-war turmoil, an oil embargo causing panic at the pump, and acid rain signaling growing environmental disorder.

The film reflected a new environmental sensibility, especially among youth, that flowered into the first Earth Day in 1970. And Soylent Green eerily prefigures current trends of corporate control, overpopulation, and a stark wealth/poverty divide. The film shows how ecological crisis can deepen anti-democratic tendencies in society, in which thuggery and force rule, and official secrecy keeps citizens powerless and abject. Even the religious institutions become mere warehouses for the poor and dying, their sanctity regularly invaded by violence.

Thorn visits Simonson’s murder scene in the victim’s luxury apartment building. Not above a little petty thievery, he indulges in a shower – hot water is a premium in his world – stealing soap and scoring food for the meager larder he shares with Sol. Thorn finds clues that Simonson may have been assassinated because of his knowledge of some unsavory facts about the Soylent Corporation.

Meanwhile, Sol’s own research into the Simonson case leads him to a shocking discovery. In despair, he finds his way to a Resolution Center, where people can voluntarily turn themselves in for euthanasia. For the masses, the Center is the only reliable sanctuary of repose, cleanliness – and air conditioning! – as they experience a Technicolor death ritual with music effects.

When Thorn pursues him there, Sol, on his deathbed, shares with Thorn a vision of the earth as it used to be. Thorn’s eyes are literally opened to the beauty of nature, awakened to the sentiment we inherently feel as creatures of nature.  The vision transforms him and his relationship to the world.

With his dying breath, Sol whispers the secret of soylent green. Thorn then decides to follow Sol’s body through the Center’s labyrinth to its final destination, where the horrific secret is confirmed.

It’s fair to note here that there are enough implausibilities in this film to drive a truck through. For example, no city could sustain 40 million inhabitants: starvation and epidemics are only two of the factors guaranteed to decimate such a huge population. Also, it is highly unlikely that the apparent platoons of laborers at the soylent manufacturing facility could keep their work secret from the general populace for  very long. And any  alert viewer would have figured out the source ingredients of soylent long before dim-bulb Thorn tumbles to it (Hint: they’re bipeds and have faces.)

 No matter. Soylent derives its power from its bluntness, which delivers an immediacy perhaps less attainable in a more artful film. It also accounts, I think,  for the film’s staying power. Because it hits you over the head, it forces you to focus -- to think and feel, “Hey, I wouldn’t want to live in a world like that.” Soylent Green’s retort, and ultimate challenge to us is: Then don’t let this happen. Seen in this light, Soylent Green is more than just a cautionary tale; it’s really a love song to the earth, a valentine cannily disguised as a science fiction detective thriller, and a call to action.

And furthermore: Soylent Green is based on the 1966 novel, “Make Room! Make Room!” by Harry Harrison