Future Tense

Why Soylent Green Got 2022 So Wrong

A sweaty man wearing a hat beneath a grate.
Charlton Heston in Soylent Green Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

I should like the 1973 film Soylent Green. Actually, I should love it. The movie deals with issues that are even more important now than they were 50 years ago. And as someone who’s spent plenty of time exploring the connections between sci-fi films, technology innovation, and the future, I feel a certain professional obligation to sing its praises.

Instead, though, I find myself frustrated by the movie and its hyperbolic and naïve handling of complex themes.

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Soylent Green is a cautionary tale set in a dystopic future where corporate greed and overpopulation have led to a ravaged environment, extreme social disparity, and shocking levels of moral depravity. It’s one of the first movies to mention the “greenhouse effect,” reflecting emerging concerns around human-caused climate change. It also tapped into the growing environmental movement of the time and blossoming fears around overpopulation.

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This was an era of activism that was driven by the likes of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Coming on their heels, Soylent Green didn’t hold back on extrapolating the most nightmarish scenarios from these and other sources to the extreme. And so it’s perhaps not surprising that the film’s final reveal, set in a future where a trashed environment can no longer sustain a burgeoning population, is a depraved “circular economy” where people are “recycled” into the food de jour—leaving audiences with a despairing Charlton Heston crying out from the screen “Soylent Green is people!”

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All of this may have remained as a footnote in the annals of dystopian 1970’s sci-fi movies, were it not for the fact that Soylent Green was set in a year we’re all very familiar with: 2022. Predictably, there’s been a flurry of journalistic interest this year in what was predicted back in 1973, and how it compares to where we are now. The good news is that we haven’t yet resorted to eating people (although based on recent trends in fiction we may be closer than we think!). But this isn’t the only thing that the film gets wrong.

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Despite being underpinned by very real issues, the extrapolated future that Soylent Green portrays is deeply out of step with present-day reality. Overpopulation is not the issue it was perceived to be in the 1970s—rather, the prospect of static and declining populations is now raising concerns. The productivity of agricultural systems has been vastly extended through technologies ranging from high yield crops and advances in irrigation techniques, to innovations in agrochemicals and genetic engineering. And rather than the dystopic single-noted social, political, and culinary narratives portrayed in the film, many—including me—would argue that the world we live in has never been more diverse and full of potential (even if some of us do have a tendency to reject this in favor of our own manufactured monotoned bubbles).

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Yet despite this, there is a growing tension between what we could potentially achieve as a society, and where human nature and poor decision-making sometimes seem to be taking us. Browse recent books and articles on the future, and optimistic visions of science and tech-fueled utopias are easily balanced by warnings of impending social, environmental, economic, and political disaster. Even in my own work I’m torn between optimism and pessimism as I grapple with what the future holds.

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This is where my frustrations with Soylent Green begin to crystallize: Hollywood hyperbole is drowning out a context that is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Strip away the movie’s narrative extremes and the underlying premise is all too familiar. Just as in the movie, we are living in times where personal and corporate greed, together with an outsized sense of entitlement, are fueling social disparity and moral corruption; where there is a cynical disregard for the future consequences of our actions; and where human rights seem to be increasingly negotiable. We may not be eating people, but neither are we doing that good a job of building a future that most of us would aspire to.

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These are issues that we all have a responsibility to grapple with. And this is where stories—including science fiction movies—have an important role to play in helping us make sense of the challenges we face together, and the pathways we can collectively carve out through them. These pathways are complex and messy though, and acknowledging this is an important first step toward successful future-building.

Movies like Soylent Green abandon such messiness in favor of predictive certainty as they set out to shock people into action. Dogmatic visions of the future are rarely reliable, though. They invariably depend on assuming that the past can be used to predict the future, and they conveniently ignore the unique ability of people to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances. And as predictions fail to materialize, shock and concern risk turning to cynicism and doubt.

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This is one reason why I’m skeptical of the ability of dogmatic apocalyptic visions of the future to substantially change hearts and minds.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good dystopian movie—especially when they intelligently challenge how I think about the future. Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is high on my “must watch” list, as is the chilling yet moving The Girl With All The Gifts directed by Colm McCarthy. Yet there’s surprisingly little research that suggests such movies on their own have a lasting influence on how people think and act.

Frustratingly, what research there is tends to be inconclusive—often accompanied by the mantra of academics everywhere: More Research Needed. This isn’t to say there isn’t research that’s worth diving into: Lauren Griffin’s research on “Cli-Fi” films and Alise Bulfin’s work on catastrophe narratives and climate change are both good places to start. More than anything, though, they show how complex the threads are between what we watch and what we think and do.

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Maybe such visions do convert some doubters to believers. But my sense is that rather than being transformative, these narratives tend to reinforce prior beliefs or help crystallize nascent ones, while turning off those who weren’t believers in the first place.

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I also suspect that movies like Soylent Green tap deeply into viewers’ cognitive biases, with consumers, commentators, and even researchers reading into the narratives what they want to see there. In other words, if Soylent Green aligns with your worldview, there’s a fair chance that you are more likely to extol its virtues than if it does not—an apocalyptic echo chamber that makes the righteous feel vindicated, but that risks alienating the apostate, the agnostic, and the ambivalent.

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The book that Soylent Green is loosely based on—Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!is nuanced in a way that the film is not, and is far more successful in its messaging as a result. Like the film, the book focuses on the challenge of overpopulation, although it doesn’t stoop so low as to suggest cannibalism as a corporate solution to the world’s woes. Instead, it uses multiple narratives to paint a complex picture of a future where excessive numbers of people, dwindling resources, and myopic decision-making lead to a complex web of social tensions and hardship.

Rather than the preachy and patronizing narrative of Soylent Green, Harrison invites readers to explore a complex and nuanced potential future. This was no doubt helped by five years of talking with experts across multiple fields prior to writing the book.

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Harrison was shocked by the script of Soylent Green, describing it as something that “transmogrified, denigrated and degutted the novel from which it had been taken” in the 1984 collection of essays Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies: The Future According to Science Fiction Cinema. I tend to agree!

On one hand, I’m not sure that this disconnect between a nuanced novel and a far from nuanced film is that important. Movies, after all—especially science fiction—are renowned for their hyperbolic speculation, and when done well we love them all the more for it. But I do worry when nuanced exploration of complex challenges is potentially undermined by naïve messaging that’s combined with implausible fantasy wrapped up as plausible reality. This, I suspect, is a large part of my frustrations with Soylent Green and other similarly over-earnest films.

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This frustration is exacerbated by the reality that we are collectively facing a growing number of increasingly complex global challenges, none of which are amenable to well-meaning but simplistic solutions. These range from accelerating climate change and declining biodiversity to cybersecurity, social injustice, geopolitics, the responsible use of powerful new technologies like A.I. and gene editing, and even what it will mean to be human in the future. In every case, there are staunch advocates for the “only” way to get things right, and serious consequences to pursuing over-simple solutions.

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Within this landscape, at the risk of calling for More Research, storytelling across different media has a role in helping understand the challenges and potential pathways forward. The temptation is to use these platforms to preach, to persuade, to manipulate people into thinking the “right” thoughts, to behaving in the “right” way, and to believing the “right” ideas. Yet in a pluralistic society that’s on a complex journey between a past and a future where there are few absolutes, such certainty risks being counterproductive.

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Ultimately this is why I suspect I am not a fan of Soylent Green. The film tries too hard to convince and convert. I’m far more interested in movies that blend entertainment with ambiguous narratives, and as a result open up conversations about the future rather than close them down. Fortunately such movies do exist—in my book Films from the Future I explore 12 of them, including classics such as Jurassic Park and Ex Machina, and the odd surprise such as the 1951 Alex Guinness movie The Man in the White Suit.

And while not everyone will agree with my choices, at least none of them involve starving protesters being scooped up wholesale into dumpster trucks, or a future where the solution to pollution (and a whole lot else) is as simple as eating people.

In today’s day and age that’s simply preposterous … isn’t it?

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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