One of my favorite sci-fi films is Soylent Green, which I’ve recently watched again for the umpteenth time. The stellar performances of Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson and the chemistry their characters shared underscored the hardships of two close friends, essentially family, who were locked in a tragic dying world scenario.
Over the years, I’ve found it informative from a writing and worldbuilding standpoint, and to satisfy my own curiosity, to examine the aspects of the story and learn more about this dismal dystopian society. My analysis will break down those elements.
Released in 1973 and loosely based on Make Room! Make Room!, a sci-fi novel by Harry Harrison published in 1966, Soylent Green looked ahead 50 years to an overpopulated world ruined by a climate catastrophe that created a global shortage of food, water, and housing.
The opening skyline view of the film showed clouds of pollution lingering over the city followed by block lettered titles indicating we’re in a version of New York City in 2022 populated by 40 million people. A loudspeaker droned first stage removal had begun and non-permits would be prohibited from the streets in one hour.
Unless you had a curfew pass.
In the real world, New York City of the 1970s experienced a severe economic downturn resulting in a migration of the middle class to the suburbs, a drop in law enforcement, and a spike in crime. Teetering on bankruptcy, abandoned city blocks created areas that were absent of life. From 1965 to 1975, murders, car thefts, and assaults doubled, rapes and burglaries tripled, and robberies increased tenfold. Vandalism was incessant and there was a pervasive sense that the social order was breaking down.
In the first minutes of the movie, exposition in the form of a TV broadcast and discussion between Detective Frank Thorn and his police book Sol Roth reveal we’re in Manhattan. The air is a layer of haze and the temperature remains unbearably hot well after dark, alluding to the real-life air pollution that was present in 1973. Some citizens can be seen wearing face filters for protection during the day.
It felt like Soylent Green was shot on the vanilla backlot of MGM with buildings that were left unaltered for the film. Scenes depicted streets and buildings reminiscent of uptown and urban areas circa 1973, yet they were mostly in good repair and appeared unused. Store windows were unbroken, barring the occasional riot at a food distribution site.
What we saw of this overcrowded NYC was intact and undamaged given the number of people that lived there. As depicted, the wear and tear of daily life, by and large, hadn’t taken much of a toll on the buildings and belongings of the people that called it home. Certainly not to the extreme levels seen in real life. I advocate a “used future” aesthetic and like settings that appear lived in and show normal use, abuse, and neglect. A good example of disregard for this was Brady the filthy grocer who wore a spotless uniform.
What remained of the private 2-acre Gramercy Park now fit inside an inflatable climate-controlled habitat, and was the only tree sanctuary in all of New York.
Chelsea Towers West was an exclusive apartment complex with a two-year waiting list and a state-of-the-art security system that mysteriously stopped working. My guess is that it was based on the London Terrace apartments in Chelsea, Manhattan.
In the movie, we see Thorn enter apartment buildings with people sleeping on the stairs, watched over by a figure like the Fat Guard, sitting at the top with an assault rifle. Sol informs us of cases he and Thorn are investigating for crimes like rapes and murders.
In reality, by 1975 over a million indigents were on welfare. Instead of jobs and hope, there were drugs and guns. Visitors were advised not to take the subways, venture outside of midtown Manhattan, or walk anywhere after six at night. Compounding the issue were the announced deep cuts in public services workers and salaries. Fires burned out of control, garbage piled up, and crimes went unenforced.
Soylent Green depicted a society of mass unemployment, where if you are employed and are sick for more than two days, you lost your job. So what did 23 million out of work people do to survive? Commit crimes. In open-air markets where the government distributed food and water, citizens tried to make quick cash by selling synthetic footwear, damaged plastic wear, or Soylent crumbs at two Ds a kilo. Back at the police precinct, people waited in lines to collect death benefits, paid in Ds or food coupons.
People in the movie were driven by self-preservation or were corrupted by a system that itself was guilty of wrongdoing at its highest levels. The majority of the citizens would only stick out their necks if they got something in return.
The governor’s office played a central role in the film. Santini, up for re-election, was a corrupt politician who employed a fixer named Donovan to do his dirty work so he could maintain distance between himself and the victims. Donovan leveraged police chief Ed Hatcher to close the Simonson case, filing it as felonious assault instead of a murder.
The Soylent Corporation controlled the food supply for half the world. At the start of the film, the governor promoted the newest food product, Soylent Green, a “miracle food of high-energy plankton, gathered from the oceans of the world.” They also made other food products, the less popular Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow, touted as high-energy vegetable concentrates made of genuine soybeans. Soylent also published a certain two-volume oceanographic survey report. In a world where printed books were a rare find, the unnumbered hardbound copies seen in the film contained very technical and highly classified data. Soylent factories and plankton ships were said to be well guarded and suggested that any efforts to gain unauthorized access would be futile.
Sanitation squads retrieved bodies and delivered them to secure waste disposal plants, which were also protected. Trucks loaded with the dead had drivers switch to other empty outbound trucks at a security checkpoint to reduce the likelihood of trespassing. They also used death tokens, a currency that got split between the sanitation squad and the police, then split again among the chief, the police, and the detective.
Police were assigned to riot control at the food and water distribution sites, then had to process next of kin death benefit claims back at the precinct. Detectives were tasked to investigate a backlog of cases and report on the status of suspects. Chief Ed Hatcher, described Thorn as a damn good cop but was influenced by an authority ‘high and hot’ and told Thorn he was bought when they paid him a salary. We never found out if he made good on his promise to tell the Exchange about Thorn’s proof. Personally, I think the Hatcher character had a promising untold story arc of discovery and purpose that could heal or hurt the citizens of New Your City. Hatcher had a re-elect Santini poster on his office wall, took a cut of the profits, bent the rules when leaned on, and insisted his top cop sign a falsified report, likely for self-gain. It’s enticing to think about what he might do when given a larger slice of the story.
The Supreme Exchange consisted of the elderly educated who helped with priority police cases and received the classified Soylent oceanographic survey report from Sol. In a world without books, they had become what was left of civilization’s knowledge. Sol spoke of prior qualifications as a teacher and full professor and addressed the Exchange Leader as ‘Your Honor’. While not mentioned, it’s reasonable to assume the Exchange members had notable qualifications similar to those once held by Sol.
The Council of Nations was an authority that the Exchange could notify, as long as there was adequate proof. The Council was mentioned near the end of the film. However, if Soylent was a global food supplier, chances are they had infiltrated that group as well.
Then there were the Suicide Parlors. Located throughout the city, these clean and well air-conditioned death centers offered a stark contrast to the dirty, hot, and crowded world outside. Within, friendly attendants provided a peaceful exit from a hellish life.
Lastly, there were remnants of organized religion and those who still believed in God. There was Paul, the blind priest who was reduced to providing beds for the homeless and hearing confessions. There was also Sol who said ‘Vaya con Dios’ to Thorn, and the Exchange Leader who asked Sol, “What God, Mr. Roth? Where will we find Him?”
There were other characters in the movie that were relegated to the minor roles or were silent on the periphery. They helped to shed a bit more light on the world of the story.
Gilbert was a street thug tasked by Donovan to get rid of Simonson. In an encampment of parked cars, we saw Donovan give him a weapon, a message, and a job. In the back seat was a woman and an infant, presumably Gilbert’s family. Undoubtedly she heard Gilbert speak his employer’s name, but was that all she heard? Did she collect Gilbert’s death benefit when he didn’t return home? Did Gilbert make arrangements with her to collect his payment from Donovan in case he didn’t make it back?
At the end of the film, inside the church Thorn explained the food situation to Hatcher. Nearby, a few people listened and seemed shocked by Thorn’s testimony. Assuming they heard enough of the details, were they motivated enough to get involved or follow up? Could the public masses who stood in line to air their sins to Father Paul or any member of the clergy be rallied to take action? It was odd that a church or religion of tomorrow wouldn’t be able to motivate its congregation and faithful with the promise of salvation, along with whatever organized support they were allowed to provide.
Thorn visited the apartment of bodyguard Tab Fielding and got a statement from Martha Phillips. Before she heard pounding on the door, Martha turned down the music to stop a baby from crying. Did the neighbors hear the Thorn’s banging on the door or any of the conversation? What about the fight between Fielding and Thorn that took place when Thorn came back later? Fat Guard who sat at the top of the stairs with an assault rifle told Thorn on arrival, “We run a clean building.” Did anyone report the disturbance? Who was the ‘we’? Could the building management confirm how Fielding paid his rent? Which stores did Fielding buy his fancy furnishings and expensive food? Did he haul bags of food upstairs, over the homeless who might have seen or heard something?
When Gilbert entered Chelsea Towers West, he waited for a security guard to pass by before moving forward. Was the guard paid to look the other way? Near the end of the film, Thorn advised Shirl to keep the scanners turned on and travel with a bodyguard. Did this confirm that Fielding was the inside culprit and not the building management?
Shirl said Chelsea Towers West had been her home for a long time. What about Kathy and the other girls? What happened to the other unwanted furniture? What if maturity or mistreatment by Charles finally put them at odds with their own complacency?
Mention was made of travel to other cities. Thorn insisted they were just like Manhattan: overcrowded and rife with crime. Early in the film, it was revealed that another case Thorn was investigating, the Matthewson murder, was closed because the suspect had fled to Philadelphia which was outside the scope of his jurisdiction.
Farms in the country were spoken of as possible safe havens but quickly dismissed, as “good land’s got to be guarded,” meaning they were off-limits to all but the elite. Presumably, the beef that Shirl ordered through Brady the grocer came from a farm, which made sense as she suggested the farms to Thorn as a possible destination.
One of my qualms with the film, as much as I love it, was its disregard for how NYC really was in the early 1970s: viciously brutal, abhorrently filthy, and doomed by neglect and overpopulation. Put simply, the movie leaned into sci-fi tropes and indicated how it rubbed MGM the wrong way and settled on a feature that focused on environmentalism instead of stepping on religious toes and pointing to the obvious fact that birth control was far easier to manage than “breeding people for cattle.” The studio settled on a final script that focused on cannibal crackers and not state-enforced contraception.
In 1970 the population of New York City was 7.9 million, give or take. The film indicated that in 2022 it had skyrocketed to 40 million. I’ll sidestep the logic of that idea, and the disparity of the population density we saw onscreen, in favor of another dire issue. In a city with soaring crime and people living on crumbs, where were the gangs? We see no market syndicates, no gang members roaming the neighborhoods like locusts, or hear mention of an underground resistance or simmering rebellion. It was unlikely that when compared to the real 1970s, unemployed people starving for food would be content to wait in lines or be threatened by riot cops shouting “the scoops are on their way!”
Also, we heard Charles tell Thorn that the security system that consisted of scanners and alarms went out of order a week earlier, for the first time in two years. Regarding parts, Charles commented, “our men fabricate replacements,” implying there was some kind of supply chain that could be exploited, possibly from within. It remained unclear if the sabotage was due to Fielding or the staff at Chelsea Towers West.
Fear City: Manhattan
As I put creative miles between my ideas and those from Soylent Green, I’m reminded of a narrative trick that was used. By having the story take place 50 years in the future of the film’s release, it occupied a sweet spot at the limit of suspension of disbelief. Any further out, say 75-100 years away, and the characters wouldn’t have a connection to the then-current 1970s world. It would’ve been someone else’s problem.
An original rpg setting I’m developing is Fear City: Manhattan. It will closely reflect a New York City that had been consumed by rampant crime and social neglect. Instead of occurring decades in the future, it will take place at the height of decay in the mid-70s.
Stay tuned for more details on this one.