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S O Y L E N T G R E E N I N T R O D U C T I O N Soylent Green was first released in 1973 and was recently reintroduced in DVD format. Starring Charlton Heston and directed by Richard Fleischer, the film is generally regarded as a minor classic of science –fiction cinema. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Hollywood released a number of films that presented the future in a pessimistic light. Often politically motivated, the films attempted to use cinema as a means of raising issues about the consequences of contemporary man’s increasing dependency on modern technology. Soylent Green represents a prophetic voice and a seminal place within the dystopic genre.
S O Y L E N T G R E E N S E T T I N G Soylent Green is set in New York City 2022, where the population has exploded to 40 million. Industrial technologies and environmental abuse have caused the earth’s temperature to rise to the point where plant and animal matter are on the brink of extinction. Poverty runs rampant in the city where half the population is unemployed. Millions of people have resorted to sleeping in stairwells, churches, subways, abandoned cars and on the streets. Because fresh food is so expensive, the masses are fed rations of a synthetic food product resembling a thin, dry biscuit. Known as soylent green, it was composed of soy beans, lentils and plankton. Within the city there is an enormous class divide with the wealthy living a comparatively extravagant lifestyle. Living in high rise apartment complexes the futuristic flats come equipped with automated sliding doors, running water, video game consoles, and refrigerators stocked with real food. As a city, New York has fallen into a state of disrepair. The wealthier neighborhoods are kept separate from the impoverished by thick concrete walls. Cathedrals have become homeless shelters and the parks have completely dried up.
S O Y L E N T G R E E N P L O T Soylent Green was adapted from a novel written by the sci-fi novelist Harry Harrison. The book was written in 1966 and was titled MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! In the original book, the story supposedly takes place in New York city on the eve of the millenium in 1999. Incidentally, Harrison didn’t serve as the screenwriter for the film and apparently wasn’t happy with the results. The plot is a sci-fi take on a basic murder mystery. The film begins with Charlton Heston, who stars as Thorn - a police officer sent to the scene of the crime. The murder victim is Simonson, a wealthy man that served on the board of directors at the Soylent corporation – manufacturers of Soylent Green. Simonson was murdered in his apartment apparently by a burglar. As Thorn and his research assistant/roommate dig deeper into the murder, they begin to understand that the murder was in fact an assassination. At this point, Thorn himself becomes a target for the assassins – who have a larger secret they are trying to cover up.
S O Y L E N T G R E E N C R I T I C A L S U C C E S S Soylent Green was well received when it was released in 1973 - both critically and at the box office. It was very popular overseas, where it was translated into a number of different languages. It did particularly in France where it was known as Soleil Vert. Today, Soylent Green is still regarded as a minor classic of its genre. If anything, it’s been criticized for not aging as well as its contemporaries – especially 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Wars (1977) which still look amazingly fresh. For a movie that is supposedly set in 2022, the scenes manage to look decidedly seventies. The opening scene in Simonson’s apartment with the groovy plastic furniture, hanging bead curtains and black and white space shooter video game has ridiculed by a number of critics. Ultimately, Soylent Green’s success lies in its willingness to deal with the environmental, political and sociological issues of global warming, class divisions and the implications of technology. It survives today as a film that challenges the mind as much as the senses.
S O Y L E N T G R E E N E N V I R O N M E N T Soylent Green’s bleak vision is motivated by an understanding of the damaging effects of industrial technologies on the environment. In 2022, global warming has raised the temperatures to a point where life barely tolerable by plants, animals and human beings. In the city, the parks have become barren. Without air conditioning or any other effective way of staving off the heat, each of the characters is drenched in sweat both day and night. Throughout the film, Heston’s character wears the same sweat soaked white T-shirt. Another environmental consequence is the lack of real food – fruits, meats and vegetables. Heston’s character has survived entirely on Soylent his entire life and only gets a taste of real food when he smuggles some away from Simonson’s apartment. His elderly roommate Sol, is old enough to remember eating fresh food and the picture to the right shows him enjoying his first non-soylent meal in decades. Similarly, Sol is able to remember a time when the nature still existed. At his self-induced death at a euthanasia clinic Sol chooses to die in front of a three dimensional screen projecting images from the natural world. Seeing this footage for the first time, the beauty of nature causes the usually abrasive Heston to pause for a minute in subdued awe.
S O Y L E N T G R E E N H U M A N D I G N I T Y Human dignity is constantly in question throughout the film. The overpopulated city has no need for more occupants and offers free euthanasia clinics as a means of relief from this congestion. The first picture shows Sol on his deathbed. The upper classes live in luxurious apartments that come equipped with concubines known only as ‘furniture.’ Like real furniture, it has no voice, no rights and is completely under the ownership and authority of its master. The dead are no longer given funerals. They are simply dumped into garbage trucks and disposed of at a location outside the city. The third picture is taken from the service area outside the euthanasia clinic. Here, the attendant takes the corpse and dumps unceremoniously dumps it into the back of a garbage truck. The last image is taken during a riot in the city market when the crowd realizes the merchants have run out of Soylent Green. Unfazed the police simply drive in and shovel the rioters into the back of their trucks in a final inhumane gesture.
S O Y L E N T G R E E N T E C H N O L O G Y 0 1 Three major themes emerge from Soylent Green, the first of which is technology. Soylent Green simultaneously embraces and condemns technology as the builder and destroyer of the modern city. The film begins with a short sequence of still images that document the evolution and fallout of the machine. Beginning with simple devices like the fishing rod, the images rapidly move into transportation technologies like the automobile and airplane. At this point, the images begin to show parking lots, traffic jams, elevated highways and suburban developments. Finally, the full implications of industrial technologies are depicted in images of garbage dumps, smoke stacks, junkyards and other polluted environments. While the first images of the automobile and airplane evoke the modernist excitement and faith in the machine, the latter represent the implications of rampant technological abuse.
S O Y L E N T G R E E N T E C H N O L O G Y 0 2 The same love/hate relationship with technology carries over to each scene in Simonson’s apartment. Shot from the exterior, we understand the complex represents a higher standard of living than the surrounding squalor. In each scene that takes place inside the apartment, the viewer is seduced by the amenities afforded by technology. From the video game console, to the running water, to the air conditioning each device seemingly makes life easier, or more fun than life without it. Based in the science-fiction genre, the entire genre is based on the aesthetic and seductive nature of technological advancement. Even in a blatantly openly dystopic and pessimistic film, the alure of technology still