Cannibalism is the point of no return for humanity, and surely also a boundary marker for cinema’s richly stocked category of foodie films. Our devouring of one another made succulent cinema fare – and in a handy biscuit form – in Richard Fleischer’s now cult-status 1973 science fiction work, Soylent Green. But the dystopian panorama it portrays – one huge company controlling all our nutritional resources, all arable land, benefitting from the ravages of extreme climate change; distressed, enslaved, and impoverished populations controlled by only slightly better-off police thugs and corrupt officers; the wealthy housed in fortress condos and served by carnally obliging housemaids hilariously known as “furniture” (yep, “she comes with the apartment”) – is now beginning to seem prophetic.
Originally trumpeted as “a more frightening and possibly more real future”, Soylent Green follows a strong, honest cop (Charlton Heston) who has never tasted a strawberry or a steak, foods which have become delights savoured only by society’s wealthy elite. In a memorable scene which helps to bring home how even supermarket bin scavengers today enjoy a luxury of riches, this policeman is served up a rare feast by an erudite, old, and similarly impoverished police investigator (Edward G. Robinson in his 101st movie role), a worker known as a ‘book’, one of several such knowledgeable civil servants, all demeaned by the state and apparently the last guardians of culture.
Soylent Green made much of the Malthusian notion that people multiply faster than the food and materials available to them, so this portrayal of such a grim New York City, set in 2022, rests on the long-foreseen result of uncontrolled population growth. In other words, we deserve it in some way. Malicious minds, like mine, would imagine the Adam Smith Institute holding up the Soylent Green model as an acceptable version of its own recommended vision for 2020, a permitted black economy for the non-rich, but without a trace of state welfare. Of course, such bodies would never publicly recommend human flesh as an alternative to starvation for the poor.
In 1973, critics saw this vision of things to come as rather unconvincing, but recent world events show us that such an awful global situation is plausible, thanks to corporate manipulation of the worldwide economy and food resources. Since it was hardly reported by the media, few people know that the Food Safety Modernization Act, brought into law in the USA by Obama in 2011, proposed until shortly before it was passed that growing your own food or using rainwater be illegal. Despite the last-minute exclusions from the bill, overall co-ordination of food supply in the US is now provided by Homeland Security, and the bill was driven by heavily-funded lobbying from, among others, Monsanto. Presumably, they and similar firms will continue to lobby to have complete control of food production, and then we will all be processed.
While prophecy is one of the strengths of this enduring film, it works too as an analogy of all societies with a money-driven hierarchy. Its many other elements – comic-book visualisation, dark humour, typically concise Hollywood dialogue, sentiment subdued by deft ironising, anger and frustration turned into suspense and timely explosion and fine acting – make for entertainment at the very least.
But perhaps the master ingredient of Soylent Green was written into the plot in the form of a detective story, the cop’s investigation of the murder of a Soylent corporation director who knew too much. This is what turns the film into a multidimensional noir, and this is skilfully cooked through careful scene creation by Fleischer and his team.
If you haven’t already, do.