Richard Fleischer, 1973
Beginning in 1969 with Planet of the Apes Charlton Heston would go on to form an unofficial trilogy of films dealing with the collapse of human civilisation, the second of these was the adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend as The Omega Man and the final being Soylent Green. The film is set in the year 2022 in a New York with a population of 40,000,000. As a result of this overcrowding, food is in short supply and everyone lives off a ration of food substitutes supplied by the Soylent corporation, the latest and most popular being Soylent Green. After the death of one of the company’s senior executives, a detective named Thorn (Charlton Heston) begins to investigate, uncovering more than he anticipated in the origins of this new super food.
Along with the aforementioned Heston films, Soylent Green stands as one of the first dystopian science fiction films to emerge. Although it could be considered the norm for films set in the future to feature post apocalyptic wastelands and totalitarian governments, these were some of the of earliest appearances in film. Although dystopian science fiction had existed in literature for some time, in novels such as The Death of Grass (which like Soylent Green also focused on society collapsing from starvation) and most famously Orwell’s 1984, film with it’s more populist and optimistic approach had been slower to embrace the idea of a bleak future. In the 1950s focus science fiction film had largely been about space exploration and the possibility of making contact with alien life, seen in films such as Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the 1960s French directors Truffaut and Godard would touch on the idea of Dystopia with their respective films Fahrenheit 451 and Alphavillebut it wasn’t until Planet of the Apes that mainstream film would take this shift in tone.
The reason for this change can be seen in the events of the time, the same year as Planet of the Apes was also the year of the moon landings, with mans first steps onto a foreign body space suddenly became less mysterious, and the futuristic setting began to be used as a way in which to approach the issues of the day. It was at this time that there began the emergence of environmentalism, 1970 saw the first Earth Day and 1971 would see the formation of Greenpeace, wanting to reflect the concerns of its audience, Hollywood was keen to cash in. The problem in Soylent Green Centres around overpopulation, the entire planet having been transformed into a giant metropolis as a result. To deal with this problem euthanasia is encouraged, people who feel their life has ran its course can voluntarily attend centres were their life is terminated. Held in secret, they are thanked for choosing death by being allowed to view footage of an earth that exists no more, a montage of forest and animals all now obliterated by man’s recklessness. It’s very literal message is of where things could go if man continues with his current rate of consumption, it is however no more heavy handed than predecssor The Omega Man with it’s polemic against nuclear weapons.
This trend for ecological science fiction would continue throughout the next decade resulting in some of it’s best films, most notably Silent Running. With it’s detective story is also one of the earliest neo-noir films to emerge, predating the most famous addition to the genre, Blade Runner, by a decade. More coherent and better acted than The Omega Man and every bit the equal of Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green stands as one of the high points of this age of meditative science fiction, an age that lasted until the release of Star Wars at which point the genre would steadily return to it’s more infantile fantasy roots. Alongside Planet of the Apes Heston also gets to deliver the second most renowned closing line of his career, an ending that achieved an iconic status and like Planet of the Apes, numerous references in The Simpsons.
words by pete bond.