Last weekend I found myself giving thought to the contributions Charlton Heston made to the science fiction genre. There have been quite a few. The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, and Soylent Green. Given the current Covid pandemic, I decided to try and unpack the narrative presented in Soylent Green (1973).
On the surface, director Richard Fleischer’s work paints a picture of a dystopian future where our inability to manage the environment will result in overcrowding and food shortages. Set in New York City in the year 2022, Mr Fleischer manages to depict an overcrowded city of 40 million people and the food shortages that come with overpopulation in a clear, straightforward way. Shots of crowded churches where the homeless are housed or apartment buildings where people with no where to go huddle in hallways and staircases do not provide panoramic views of the misery; no overdone visuals. The shots are efficient and sufficient enough to convey that this is a world under day-to-day stress.
It would be no surprise if the casual viewer surmised the movie to be primarily about the environment. Since the central story involves a detective trying to solve the murder of a wealthy lawyer, it would also be no surprise if viewers saw the movie as a suspense thriller with the backdrop of a polluted world filled with starving people and overcrowded cities getting in the way of the detective’s investigation.
What I saw in the movie is a narrative that addresses how we view the utility of human beings. At first I was going to describe the narrative as one addressing humanity, but I see a fine line distinction. The textbook definition of humanity is the fact or quality of being human or humane. To be humane is to be kind, tender, or merciful. To be human is to have the characteristics or qualities of what we describe as people.
But the definitions of humane, human, and humanity do not discuss utility or usefulness. Utility, in my view, is the heartbeat of the movie. This heartbeat is subtle in Mr Fleischer’s work, which is a far cry from today’s movies that address what some consider our current dystopia. Today’s cinematic work tends to be too preachy, sounding like boom rah rah that you hear in the locker room. Rather than boisterously announcing how grand the food is before we even smell it, Mr Fleischer uses his characters to simply set the table allowing the food to speak for itself. Here are three examples.
Edward G. Robinson‘s character, “Sol Roth” is a “book” for “Detective Thorn”, played by Charlton Heston. A book is an information consultant or reference librarian assigned to a police officer. While Thorn derives a lot of value from Sol, the characters also display respect and love for each other, not only in action but in words. Their sincerity is apparent, especially near the end of the film moments before Sol’s death. Sol is more than a tool for Thorn. Sol’s usefulness to Thorn is also emotional.
Contrast that with the evolution that Joseph Cotton‘s character, William Simonson, took in relation to that of Leigh Taylor-Young‘s character. Taylor-Young’s character is Shirl, a woman referred to as “furniture.” Furniture is a live-in lover, playmate, and entertainment director that may come with an apartment. They are commodities, chattel, in most cases; play things for wealthy men. Mr Fleischer hints in his directing that Simonson, while coming to terms with a horrific secret not shared until the end of the movie, may have been re-evaluating his view of Shirl as more than just the woman warming his bed or providing entertainment for his guest. We will never for sure how far this evolution would have gone given Mr Simonson’s demise.
Lastly, there is the utility of human beings as food. Depleted natural resources have brought man to the point where he physically feeds on himself. The horror of it is that world governments and global suppliers of food have not been transparent about the source of this high-protein food supply. The irony is that humans are unknowingly offering themselves up for consumption via euthanasia, a decision driven by the hopelessness that they see around them.
It would be a bit naive to argue that we as westerners are today not at that point in our existence. We have been offering ourselves up for consumption for centuries, in many ways like the human blood bags depicted in Mad Max: Fury Road. We make ourselves available as taxable events, working eight, nine, ten hours a day only to have significant percentages of our income transferred from us via taxes to government and then from government via interest payments to bondholders. The bondholders then take their residuals and reinvest them in businesses that market products to us and from whom we make purchases, supplying businesses with revenues and profits and banks with interest payments.
The utility provided by the human being is his availability to be consumed.
Detective Thorn implored his boss to tell the world that humans were a food supply. I can’t see Thorn surviving the release of a secret so deeply held by governments and corporations. An epilogue showing him being converted into bars of soylent green would not be surprising. How many of us would want to rock that boat?