M. Keith Booker, University of Arkansas
Soylent Green is probably the best remembered of the several dystopian films that were produced in the United States in the early 1970s. Based on the 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, Soylent Green depicts a future world in which overpopulation and environmental devastation have led to a drastically reduced standard of living for most citizens. Set in a 2022 New York City with a population of 40 million, the film features police detective Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) as he investigates the recent murder of a prominent local citizen. This investigation leads him into the circles of the wealthy, who still live lives of luxury and plenty, even as the mass of the population struggles to survive. Food is particularly in short supply. Much of the world’s food is produced by the Soylent Corporation, a huge conglomerate that manufactures various sorts of (presumably nutritious) processed foods. Their latest product is the Soylent Green of the film’s title, which Thorn ultimately discovers is manufactured from the bodies of recently deceased humans, especially those sent from government-sponsored suicide facilities, which have been set up as a way of dealing with the overpopulation problem. (This sensational cannibalism theme, perhaps the biggest reason the film is so memorable, was added in the film and was not present in Harrison’s novel. Thorn also discovers that the corporation was responsible for the murder he is investigating; their hit men target him as well, but he survives to try to get out the truth about Soylent Green, though it seems unlikely as the film ends that he will have any success taking on the powerful Soylent Corporation. The film also features Edward G. Robinson in his last film role, as Thorn’s aging friend, Sol Roth, who commits suicide in one of the government facilities. Ironically, Robinson himself knew he was dying of cancer at the time; he passed away 12 days after shooting for the film was completed.
Soylent Green was unapologetically conceived as pop cultural entertainment fodder, with several sensational elements added to the novel to help achieve that goal, in addition to the central cannibalism motif for which it is so well remembered. Nevertheless, the film manages to address a surprising array of contemporary issues. Soylent Green and the other popular early 1970s dystopian science fiction films clearly sought to draft on the commercial success of the 1968 classic Planet of the Apes, but it is also the case that such films were so popular in the early 1970s because such films resonated so powerfully with the mood of the American nation at the time, which was relatively dark for a number of reasons. For example, the American popular consciousness in the early 1970s was largely dominated by the Watergate scandal (which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974) and the collapse of the problematic American war effort in Vietnam (which led to a hasty and messy American withdrawal in 1975).
Soylent Green addresses neither of these key issues directly, though its dystopian world is strongly informed by an almost paranoid sense that those in power are corrupt and untrustworthy and that the general population really has no idea what is going on behind the scenes. This skepticism toward authority—which would soon lead to the success of Ronald Reagan’s anti-government campaign for president and eventually to an antipathy toward government that would imperil the entire American democratic experiment—provides crucial background, not just to Soylent Green, but also to near-contemporary dystopian science fiction films such as Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971), Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man (1971), Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972), Norman Jewison’s Rollerball (1975), and Michael Anderson’ Logan’s Run (1976).
On a slightly more subtle level, the darkness and skepticism of this wave of films was surely informed by a sense that the utopian dreams of the countercultural movements of the 1960s had largely come to an unsuccessful conclusion by the end of 1968, a year marked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Jr., the Chicago Police riots, and the eventual election of Richard Nixon as the U.S. president. This sense that the lofty hopes of the 1960s had come to naught (or worse) was also clearly a major contributing factor to the dark mood of early-1970s America.
Meanwhile, in addition to these general aspects of the political climate of its contemporary historical moment, Soylent Green is quite obviously and specifically inspired by two new modes of awareness that arose within the 1960s counterculture. The first and most foregrounded of these is concern that runaway population growth was on the verge of pushing the earth’s human population to levels that could not be sustained by the planet’s available natural resources. This concern was particularly boosted by Paul R. Erlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), which warned in the strongest possible terms of the potential catastrophic effects of runaway population growth. The book, whose title refers to the already current notion of a “population explosion,” builds on the fact that worldwide population growth had been proceeding at an unprecedented level for some time, doubling from about 2 billion in the late 1930s to about 4 billion at the time of the writing of the book.
Ehrlich’s predictions for the future were particularly apocalyptic, but they participated in a widespread concern during the 1960s that worldwide population growth was out of control and that this process would surely yield dire consequences at some point. In addition to Make Room! Make Room!,science fiction novels such as Anthony Burgess’s The Wanting Seed (1962) and John Brunner’s brilliant Stand on Zanzibar (1968) focused on the potential dystopian consequences of overpopulation which was, at the time, a topic of widespread concern, a concern that is reflected very effectively in Soylent Green.
Discussing Soylent Green and the 1972 Danish-American film Z.P.G. (“Zero Population Growth), Olszynko-Gryn and Ellis note how such films played an important role in the rise of concerns about overpopulation at the time, a rise that has typically been associated with academic discourse and the intellectual elite:
“Grassroots activism around population control was about more than elite intellectual and political discourses. As we have argued in this article, fictionalized and filmed scenarios played a constitutive role in environmental and reproductive activism, and also in the imperative of both movements to reach a large number of people. This makes mass-market fiction, both on paper and on celluloid, a privileged site of contestation” (68).
Meanwhile, the increasing concerns about population growth in the 1960s were part of the larger bourgeoning phenomenon of environmentalism and concern with the destruction of the natural environment by unrestrained industrial development. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which details the harmful environmental effects of chemical pesticides, is generally credited with having inspired the modern environmentalist movement, which led to the founding of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 and which was still gaining momentum at the time of the making of Soylent Green. The filmfocuses on overpopulation and on the resultant overcrowding and shortage of food, but it also stipulates the general environmental decay that has exacerbated the situation. In the film’s very first scene, for example, Thorn is starting the day in the shabby apartment that he shares with the elderly Roth, a police “book” who helps provide information that aids Thorn in his criminal investigations. Roth complains early on about the ongoing weather conditions: “How can anything survive in a climate like this? A heat wave all year long. A greenhouse effect. Everything is burning up.” Thorn gently mocks Roth for his repetitiveness, so it is clear that the old man has lodged this same complaint many times before. This scene thus already introduces the theme of global warming, a phenomenon that is much better known today than it was at the time, though scientists were already worrying that excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might produce the greenhouse effect to which Roth refers, leading to a runaway heat up of the planet.
This motif will not be emphasized again in the film, except for a couple of references to how pleasant it is to be able to get into an air-conditioned environment, something that is increasingly difficult because decreasing resources and a collapsing infrastructure mean that only the wealthy have a reliable supply of electricity. Indeed, in this first scene, we see Roth peddling a stationary bicycle to charge the batteries that provide a meager supply of electricity for the apartment. Meanwhile, at the end of the film, Thorn realizes that the reason human beings are being recycled as a food source is that the plankton of which Soylent Green is supposedly made has been destroyed by the decay of its environment. Thus, Thorn yells, as he is carried away at the end of the film, “The ocean’s dying. Plankton’s dying. It’s people. Soylent Green is made out of people!”
This last scene, one of the best-known in all of American science fiction film, is a sort of companion piece to the ending of Planet of the Apes five years earlier, in which protagonist George Taylor suddenly realizes that he is not on a distant alien planet but on an earth ruined by the folly of men and subsequently ceded to apes. “Oh, my God!” he cries, dropping to his knees. “I’m back. I’m home. All the time it was … We finally really did it! You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! Goddamn you all to hell!” Taylor, of course, is also played by Heston, which is perhaps the most obvious indicator that these two films serve as companion pieces that together indicate two possible nightmare futures for humanity, one involving a nuclear holocaust, and one involving an environmental holocaust. (In between, by the way, Heston had also starred in 1971’s The Omega Man, in which a global pandemic brings about the end of human civilization, indicating still another possible disastrous future for humanity. Such films were clearly a Heston specialty during this period.)
Soylent Green does not overtly stipulate the causes of the general environmental decline that is central to its scenario, though an opening montage of still shots provides a sort of capsule history of the modern industrial era, emphasizing images such as smokestacks spewing pollution into the air and thus suggesting that human activity, especially industrial development, is a major contributing factor to the decay of the environment, combining with overpopulation to create an almost unlivable world. That this introduction was quite effective even in 1973, indicates the extent to which the film’s original audience was already well aware of the negative impact of industrial development on earth’s natural environment, even if the full consequences had yet to be understood.
Another important aspect of the film is that the decaying physical infrastructure seems to be accompanied by a collapse of social and political systems. Delia Gonzalez de Reufels thus notes that the film participates in a 1970s suspicion of the “political elite” and argues that “one of the messages of Soylent Green is that doing nothing to halt population growth is tantamount to endorsing mass impoverishment and a descent into barbarism. Cowardly and corrupt politicians bear the primary responsibility for this, especially as in the future they conceal the extent of the ecological catastrophe from their voters and fail to admit that there is no longer enough food to sustain humanity” (51). The corruption of the government in Soylent Green, though, is more implied than specifically demonstrated, thoughit is clear that the police department for which Thorn works is completely overwhelmed due to the horrific overcrowding of the city and the accompanying rise in crime rate. Thus, while there might be a certain amount of corruption in the department, its ineffectiveness seems to be mostly because they simply do not have the resources to do their jobs properly, so that they have essentially given up even attempting to do so.
In this sense, Soylent Green draws directly upon the fact that the 1970s were a period of crisis in this sense as well, with America’s urban areas were particularly in a state of decline. The 1970s were, in fact, a particularly difficult time in the history of New York City, which went through a very troubled period in the first part of that decade, leading to a severe fiscal crisis faced by the city by late 1975. This crisis, meanwhile, is perhaps marked most vividly in historical memory by a notorious newspaper headline that dramatized the stated refusal of then-President Gerald Ford to allow the federal government to come to the city’s aid. In a speech delivered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on October 29, 1975, Ford announced his intention to veto any bill that might be passed by Congress to dictate financial aid to the city. The next day, the New York Daily News responded with a front-page headline that remains almost legendary in the annals of the city (and of journalism): “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
The characterization of Thorn adds an individual touch to the film’s depiction of the police department and of New York’s city government in general. Thus, we see that he is a basically honest cop who wants to do the right thing, but that, give the conditions under which he works, he has also developed a layer of cynicism that makes him willing to bend the rules in pursuit of his goals, both personal and political. The main plot of the film is kicked into gear when one Simonson (Joseph Cotton), an executive of the powerful Soylent Corporation, is murdered in his posh apartment. Assigned to investigate the murder, Thorn insists on continuing his investigation, even after pressure from higher up tries to force the inquiry to be dropped. At the same time, Thorn also recognizes the basic injustice of the fact that Simonson had been living in such luxury while most of the population of the city was struggling simply to survive. Indeed, the wealthy seem to have been little affected by the collapse of civil society and of the natural world, living on in the same kind of protected shell that they always had. Thorn then shows his contempt for this kind of class privilege and for the inequities on which it is built by availing himself of the amenities in Simonson’s luxurious apartment as his investigation proceeds. He thus spends as much time as possible in the apartment, eating Simonson’s fancy food and drinking his expensive alcohol while enjoying the comforts of Simonson’s deluxe shower and costly furniture.
The most important element of this “furniture” is the young woman Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), who is described precisely as a piece of furniture that comes with this apartment. Indeed, after the apartment is taken by a new tenant at the end of the film, “possession” of Shirl passes to the new tenant, even though she begs Thorn, who has by this time been availing himself of her services, to take her away from this demeaning existence. Thorn declines, for reasons that are not specified, though a charitable reading would be that he does not want her to get caught up in his battle with the Soylent Coporation. A less charitable reading, of course, would be that Thorn is not much concerned with Shirl’s welfare, either because of his fundamental cynicism or because he us too busy playing the stereotypical role of the white male savior to be concerned about mere personal relationships.
Shirl’s plight comments on the way in which human beings have been devalued in this vastly overpopulated world, a motif that is perhaps most vividly conveyed in the film’s corporate-sponsored cannibalism theme, which clearly reads as a sort of allegory about capitalism and the way in which some people feed on other people as a basic feature of the system. The devalued status of individual humans, meanwhile, is visually conveyed by multiple scenes in which we see human bodies (both living and dead) being scooped up into vehicles that look exactly like garbage trucks. The implication could not be more clear: there are so many humans in this world that they have become essentially another form of pollution and need to be cleaned up like so much trash.
That this devaluation of human beings (and human bodies) extends to the sexual servitude of women like Shirl adds an extra dimension to this motif by tying it to a long historical trend toward the objectification of women. Given this trend, it is not surprising that a society that comes to ignore the humanity of most people would especially disregard the humanity of women. At the same time, the portrayal of Shirl does suggest that certain attractive young women are valuable to the extent tht they provide pleasure and comfort to affluent men and so are not merely disposable.
While Soylent Green is certainly sympathetic to the plight of Shirl—who has apparently been cast in the role of “furniture” since she was a teenager and is desperate to escape that role. At the same time, it is no doubt a weakness of the film that it does not give Shirl the agency to perform that escape. In fact, it includes no truly strong female characters at all. Thus, while Shirl wishes to end her career as furniture, she cannot even imagine taking action to make that happen. Instead, all she can imagine is that a strong man, such as Thorn, might come along and save her. We also meet a second “piece of furniture” in the person of one Martha (Paula Kelly), who does seem a bit less passive than Shirl (though in support of the system, rather than in opposition to it) in that she stands up to Thorn when he threatens to disrupt the life she has with Tab Fielding (Chuck Connors), Simonson’s bodyguard and her “owner.” Thorn, though, quickly punches her out, so that her representation in the film can hardly be taken as a strong sign of the film’s feminist commitment.
In many ways, the most interesting female character in Soylent Green might well be the unnamed leader of the police information Exchange, where Sol goes to confirm his suspicions about Soylent Green. This woman, played by Celia Lovsky, does occupy a position of some respect, and she does reach an honest conclusion concerning the information that Sol has brought to the Exchange. The Germanic accent of Lovsky (a native of Vienna and one-time wife of well-known actor Peter Lorre) adds a certain dignity to her role, even if it also exoticizes her to some extent. But science fiction fans might tend especially to exoticize her because they will probably remember Lovsky from the classic 1967 “Amok Time” episode of the original Star Trek series, in which she played T’Pau, a powerful Vulcan matriarch who displays some of the same gravity as the Exchange leader in Soylent Green.
One motif that the film decides to stay away from has to do with the fact that women’s bodies also occupy a special position in a vastly overpopulated society because it is women who produce children. This idea is, in fact, crucial to Make Room! Make Room!, whose central political message involves the importance of promoting the effective use of birth control in such a society, something for which Sol Roth becomes a key spokesman. When this film was made, birth control was somewhat more controversial than it is now, with the Catholic Church being particularly vehement in its opposition to all methods of artificial birth control—a problem that is directly addressed in Harrison’s novel. Of course, the Church has also long been particularly activist in its attempts to influence the content of Hollywood films, though its views on film have lost even more influence than have its views on contraception in the decades since the release of Soylent Green. Indeed, there is some evidence that the birth control theme of the novel was omitted from the film partly because the studio did not want to have to deal with the possibility of Catholic-led protests (Brosnan 200). The result, however, led to a somewhat distorted reception of the film. Thus, Olszynko-Gryn and Ellis argue that, because of Soylent Green’s lack of any reference to contraception, “later viewers came to regard it as a film more about climate change than overpopulation” (67).
Of course, overpopulation can occur either because of an excessive birth rate or because of an excessive death rate. Though it somewhat prudishly avoids dealing with the first of these causes, Soylent Green does address the second by envisioning a system of official suicide centers (apparently operated by the government in cooperation with the Soylent Corporation) where individuals can go in order to be put to a peaceful and painless death, accompanied by the music of their choice and by beautiful videos of nature in its pure state, before it had been ruined by humans. Indeed, in what is perhaps the most emotionally compelling moment in the film, Sol decides that he has had enough of life in this degraded world, both because of the physical unpleasantness of his life and because he has been dispirited by the discovery of the secret of Soylent Green, which has finally convinced him that this is a cruel and dehumanizing world in which he does not wish to live.
Sol also perishes in the original novel, though there he simply falls ill and dies. The suicide motif is added to the film for emotional impact, and Sol’s death, with Thorn looking on, heartbroken, is certainly poignant. However, in some ways, it becomes even more powerful as we move into the final segment of the film, beginning with the disposal of his body (and with those of many other suicides) in what seems a rather callous way. The bodies of Sol and his fellow suicides at the center are dumped into those garbage trucks and then carted unceremoniously away, which is bad enough, but we soon learn (as we follow Thorn on the track of the bodies) that they are being shipped to the Soylent plant, where they are then processed into unappetizing tile-like chunks of Soylent Green, which is thus, as Thorn so memorably declares at the end of the film, “people!”
Given the nature of this world, it is hard to see the ending as a triumph in which Thorn’s discovery triggers strong action that leads to the end of the Soylent Green project. Indeed, the film immediately cuts to its end credits, which are accompanied by the same soothing nature visuals that had accompanied the death of Sol Roth. One possible implication of these final visuals is that Thorn is also dying, but another possible implication is that the world is continuing to die, with human beings moving passively toward the end of their time on earth without taking the kind of strong actions that would be necessary to prevent that end from occurring.
One of the basic questions that arises with regard to Soylent Green concerns the fact that its central “Soylent Green is people” theme makes no sense whatsoever. Nothing could possibly be more inefficient as a solution to a systematic food shortage than recycling human beings in this way, either in an economic or in a nutritional sense. But that, of course, is not the point. Soylent Green is a work, not of realism, but of entertainment and satire. We should not ignore the fact that this film was designed to attract and entertain audiences and that the sensationalism of this cannibalism theme was extremely effective in this sense. It is also the reason that Soylent Green is more widely remembered (and memed) than any of the other dystopian science fiction films of the 1970s.
But we should also keep in mind that Soylent Green, like all of the best science fiction, is a work of satire that uses its distance from reality to create fresh perspectives on the realworld. The cannibalism theme clearly enhances the satirical impact of the film by creating a shock effect that drives home its points about the potentially dire consequences of runaway population growth and environmental decay, as well as its message concerning corporate greed and corruption. All of these points are important and valid, but they also involve things that are sometimes difficult to get people excited about. Soylent Green attempts to provide that excitement both through satirical exaggeration and by conveying its vision of the future via a film that is held together by a basic detective-story plot, punctuated, especially in its final sequence, with violent action scenes.
Looking back from 2022, the year in which the action of Soylent Green is set, it might be easy to conclude that conditions have not deteriorated nearly as much as indicated in the film. The population of New York City, for example, was roughly 8.8 million in the U.S. census of 2020, as opposed to roughly 7.9 million in the census of 1970, suggesting population growth far less dramatic than indicated in the film. (The total U.S. population increased from just over 200 million to about 330 million over the same period.) Nonetheless, Richard Ehrlich has inisted over the years that, while the baleful scenario put forth in The Population Bomb appears at first glance not to have been realized, there are actually a number of reasons to believe that the long-term prospects for the human race are even worse than those anticipated in his 1968 book, largely on the basis of growing overconsumption and income inequality, which greatly exacerbate the general problem of shortage of resources.
Ehrlich, though, has staunchly maintained that his book does not make predictions in any case but simply calls attention to potential problems. One might say the same thing about Soylent Green and about science fiction in general, which is typically not as much concerned with literally predicting the future as it is with using the future as a perspective from which to produce a defamiliarized view of the present. That the fundamental problems identified by Soylent Green were (and are) genuine concerns, seems undeniable, and many aspects of our current world resonate with the film in interesting ways. The gap between the rich and poor is growing ever wider in our own 2020, with billionaires moving more and more into a rarefied world that has little contact with that of ordinary people. New York’s population is nowhere near 40 million, and its stairways are not covered with sleeping homeless people, yet homelessness is a genuine problem there and in virtually all other major American cities. The natural environment might still be functioning a bit better than the one indicated in the film, but we see more and more indications that it might be one the verge of total collapse sooner rather than later.
All in all, then, Soylent Green is a paradigmatic example of science fiction film, which often engages with important social and political issues, even as its primary goals are entertainment and profit-making. It also illustrates well the typical way in which science fiction engages important contemporary issues by displacing them into a distant place or time in order to create a defamiliarized perspective. That we have now reached that future in our own time surely adds a touch of irony of the film’s vision, but it in no way negates the film’s fundamental warnings about overpopulation and environmental decay.
Brosnan, John. Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction. Macdonald and Jane, 1978.
Gonzalez de Reufels, Delia. “The End of the American Way Overpopulation and Its Consequences in Soylent Green and Logan’s Run.” Reality Unbound: New Departures in Science Fiction Cinema. Edited by Aidan Power, et al., Bertz and Fischer, 2017, pp. 34–55.
Olszynko-Gryn, Jesse, and Patrick Ellis. “Malthus at the Movies: Science, Cinema, and Activism around Z.P.G . and Soylent Green.” Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, vol. 58, no. 1, Fall 2018, pp. 47-69.
Yates, Michelle. “Crisis in the Era of the End of Cheap Food: Capitalism, Cannibalism, and Racial Anxieties in Soylent Green.” Food, Culture & Society,Vol. 22, No. 5, 2019, pp. 608–621.
 On the cannibalism motif in Soylent Green as an allegory about capitalism, see Yates.