Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Soylent Green (review) 70's Sci-Fi Week

This poster and the tagline are so great...

If you've heard of this movie (well, you have now in any case) and the ending has not been spoiled for you yet then you should really turn around now and go watch it. I won't spoil it without warning, but seeing this movie without knowing the ending must be quite magical. Soylent Green is basically the companion piece to Monday's The Omega Man in that the premises are basically reversed: in The Omega Man, Charlton Heston lives in a world with a dwindling population, while in Soylent Green Charlton Heston lives in a world with a bloated population. There are a lot of other much more minor similarities between the two (they both feature strong female and black characters for one), so it's no wonder they have producer Walter Seltzer in common.

The year is 2022 and the population of New York City is 40 million people (about 5 times what it is today in case you were wondering). As a result of both overpopulation and overproduction, the world is suffering from pollution, poverty, climate change, and the loss of natural resources (this is communicated in montage at the beginning of the movie and is really quite excellent). Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) and Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson in his final film role) live together as a sort of crime fighting duo with Thorn doing the traditional field work (interviews, investigations, etc.) and Sol doing the background research.

Thorn is called in to investigate the untimely death of a retired rich man (when Thorn asks what his occupation was the answer is literally "rich"), but when the dead man's former bodyguard attempts to assassinate him and the police chief orders him to stop his investigation the case becomes more interesting and important than Thorn could have realized. Turns out the dead guy was high up on the food chain at the Soylent company (which mass produces nutritional crackers the poor are forced to live on) and he had a terrible secret...

Yup.

Considering Soylent Green is best known for its one cheesy line (the line that ruins the movie) it's perhaps somewhat ironic that of all the movies I'll be reviewing this week it's the most traditional and relatable. It's basically a detective thriller played on a science-fiction backdrop and suffers from none of the stilted dialogue issues or hilarious costumes the era was prone to (I know this is two in a row where this is the case, but don't worry, the quirky sci-fi is on its way). The only problem contemporary audiences might have is that, like The Omega Man before it, the soundtrack is minimal and unless you're familiar with the era you probably won't recognize any of the actors. We do get a hint at the film's sci-fi roots in the set of the rich man's house, but other than that this could basically be set in present day (well, it sort of is at this point, but you know what I mean).

Both to postpone spoiling the twist and to avoid ending what ought to be a positive review on a negative note I want to talk about my one major issue with the film (which of course comes from a very minor aspect of it). In the future of Soylent Green women are allowed the profession of being "furniture", which basically entails being a domestic prostitute of sorts. What bothers me about this is that instead of saying "in the future we're going to objectify women even more" what this seems to emerge from is a desire to eliminate those troublesome barriers to having sex whenever we want. The problem isn't "we're sexist so how do we fix this" but "there's something blocking me from he from having sex all the time so how do we fix this". Considering most of the film functions as social commentary we can sort of assume the same for this, but the movie doesn't really develop it. The good news is that both of the "furniture" characters resist their objectification, so it's not all bad in the end I guess.

Alright I can't go any farther without talking about the ending.

Iconic scene is iconic.

Considering the setting for the movie is only 9 years in the future now it's a bit eerie how resonant some of the central themes are with today's cultural milieu. Our current anxieties concerning genetically modified organisms (GMO) as well as our obsession with natural or organic foods is directly mirrored in the revelation that soylent green is made out of people (there I said it). We ultimately don't know what we're eating unless we control its production at every level. However, as the movie makes clear in the scene pictured above, the majority of the population doesn't have the luxury of worrying what type of food they're eating since they're too busy making sure they have anything to eat at all.

There's a terrible/wonderful irony in of the pervasiveness of the movie's twist (just Google "soylent green is people"). The ultimate horror of Soylent Green is not that people have been eating food made out of other people, but that the nature of the class disparity allowed this to happen. The rich upper class have real food to eat, and while it's admittedly scarce we do learn that there are still farms and that they're protected like fortresses. The rich upper class decided to make soylent green out of people and feed it to the poor in the same way Monsanto decides what we eat based on their ability to buy out or sue anyone with a competing worldview. I'm not saying that eventually we'll find food on our own shelves made out of people. I just think it's important to realize that the problem of transparency in the food industry and the ever-growing gap between the upper and lower class are the same problem, and I love how this is illustrated in Soylent Green.



2 comments:

  1. I haven't seen this movie, but I have developed an attraction to the idea that 'certain' humans could be used as food for the rest of us, or maybe for animals. I'm talking mainly about animal abusers. Sometimes I regret not being a vegetarian, and it's funny that eating meat disgusts me.

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    1. Yeah, one of my best friends is a farmer so I can totally sympathize both with the hatred of poorly treating animals and with the confusing feelings regarding being a carnivore. Animals can't live forever though, and I think as long as you help them live a happy life there's nothing wrong with eating them.

      Side thought: while making animal abusers into soylent green definitely seems like a proper punishment, would you really want to eat that? Maybe feed it to the other animal abusers I guess.

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