I have always loved science fiction. So when Soylent Green was first released in 1973, I immediately headed to the theater. I remember clearly being shocked by the depictions presented but assuaging myself with the comforting thought that nothing like any of that would ever actually happen.
The story takes place in 2022 — 50 years from when it was filmed. Now that 2022 has actually arrived, I decided to view the film again to check how well the writers did at predicting the world of today.
Unsurprisingly, the movie got several of the details very wrong, as Kyle Smith recently pointed out in a tongue-firmly-in-cheek takedown of contemporary liberal-hysteria culture. On a more macro level, the film also completely missed feminism, one of the most powerful social revolutions in history. In its dystopia, no women are in positions of power, and the main female characters are high-priced courtesans, known by the truly objectifying term “furniture.”
The tech revolution was also absent. There are no computers or cellphones in Soylent Green’s 2022. And, as Kyle also noted, the film erroneously depicts the world as riven by an overpopulation crisis so profound — New York City stuffed with 40 million people — that foods such as steak and fruit are in critically short supply, and most people are reduced to eating synthetic food chips.
Still, considering that the film was projecting forward five decades, Soylent Green was remarkably prescient. Here’s a list of plot devices that I thought were too dark to ever come true when I first saw the movie, but which — very roughly — have become disturbingly real:
Global warming. Talk about before its time! The film’s opening montage consists of a series of images depicting mass industrialization over time, complete with polluted rivers, belching smokestacks, and jammed highways. We are told that the “greenhouse effect” caused catastrophic planetary warming, resulting in collapsing food production and other assorted miseries. Frankly, if I hadn’t known when the movie was made, I might have mistaken these introductory images for an Al Gore–produced advocacy clip. Whatever one thinks of anthropogenic climate change, the filmmakers absolutely nailed one of the most important controversies of the contemporary moment.
Profound income inequality. The movie depicts a society riven by stark income inequality. There are either the very rich, the poor, or the destitute. The middle class seems to have disappeared. While the fictional disparity is well beyond anything seen in the actual 2022 United States, its disturbing vision of a society in which some live in secure splendor behind high walls, while others live in increasing chaos, is gut-wrenchingly recognizable.
Rolling blackouts. The NYC of Soylent Green experiences systemically caused power blackouts. Our NYC doesn’t. But California today does. Each year, power is turned off to millions of customers because of the fire hazard presented by shoddily maintained electrical equipment and overreliance on green energy. Texas experienced a catastrophic power failure during a series of severe winter storms last year, caused at least in part by overreliance on unreliable renewables and the freezing of natural-gas pipelines. Europe’s electrical grid has become so iffy — and about to get worse as Germany stupidly takes three nuke generating plants out of commission — that Austria is educating its people about pending blackouts under the theme, “What to do when everything stops.”
Dead bodies treated like sewage. Human life has so little intrinsic value in Soylent Green that instead of being given burials or respectful cremations, cadavers are removed by garbage trucks and brought to mass-disposal centers to be dumped into what looks like sewage-processing plants (where unknown to the populace, they are formulated into a food staple called soylent green). We are not inadvertent cannibals today, of course. Nor are our bodies treated so disrespectfully. But some people are choosing to have their bodies liquified after death so they can be poured down the sewer or composted to be used as fertilizer. These new “green” methods of disposition are not metaphysically neutral, and, in my view, reflect a growing disdain for the inherent importance of human life that was magnified and bore such bitter fruit in Soylent Green.
People living in the streets. SG-NYC is so overpopulated that masses of people are forced to live in the streets. We have the same problem today, without the convenient excuse of mass overpopulation. In some of our richest cities — San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland — thanks to progressive public polices, homeless people live in squalid tent communities, befouling the sidewalks with human wasted and transforming parks and major thoroughfares into so many shanty towns. That such a human catastrophe would become a reality in the United States was utterly unthinkable in 1973.
Euthanasia. When the character Sol — played by Edward G. Robinson in his last role — learns the truth about soylent green, he despairingly decides to “go home.” The next scene has Sol walking up to a basketball stadium-sized assisted-suicide clinic, where elderly, sick, and infirm people are lining up to be made dead. In the movie’s most shocking — at the time — depiction, Sol takes a proffered poison liquid and spends the remaining minutes of his life listening to classical music and watching images of beautiful nature that is no more.
Today, the scene no longer carries the punch it did in 1973. Euthanasia is becoming an increasingly accepted and normalized reality. Switzerland even allows for-pay suicide clinics to which people travel from around the world in a phenomenon known as “suicide tourism.” German courts have declared a fundamental constitutional right to commit suicide and to assist someone else’s death; i.e., death on demand.
The Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, and several other nations allow lethal-injection euthanasia for the sick, disabled, and despairing, including those with mental illnesses and dementia. Eight states in the United States, plus Washington, D.C., statutorily allow doctor-prescribed death for the terminally ill — which is sometimes implemented via Zoom interviews and examinations. And talk about making utilitarian use of those who decide to have themselves made dead — the euthanized are not processed into food, but in Canada, the Netherlands, and Belgium, their organs sometimes are harvested in conjunction with their hastened demises.
Good dystopian fiction both offers piquant critiques of the time in which it appears and issues a cogent warning about a dark future that may befall a culture if the trends discerned by the authors or filmmakers continue. The best and most prophetic of such works in the 20th century were Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. Soylent Green does not live up to those masterpieces. But the Wesley of 1973 would be stunned by how close some of the movie’s most troubling images were to predicting what actually came to pass. For that matter, the Wesley of today is, too.