Hundreds of films have attempted to visualize the future; most didn’t do a great job. “Freejack” (1992) imagined widespread time-traveling assassins by 2009, while box office bomb “The Postman” (1997) predicted 2013 would be post-apocalyptic.
But about 50 years ago, Hollywood’s prognosticators seemed to hit on the truth.
In 1972, the Planet of the Apes franchise released its fourth film, “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.” It’s set in the year 1991 and imagines Earth in the grip of a lethal pandemic. Draw your own AIDS/SARS/Zika/covid comparisons.
But “Soylent Green,” released in 1973 and based on a novel by Harry Harrison, was even more eerily prescient. It’s set in the then-far-off future of 2022. It stars Charlton Heston — known for playing Moses in “The Ten Commandments” (1956) and for being the five-time president of the National Rifle Association — as Thorn, a New York police detective. And the planet he inhabits looks a lot like ours.
The plot centers on a murder investigation. But let’s examine which of the film’s social predictions have come true now that we’ve reached the year of its setting.
As long ago as “The Jetsons” in 1962, TV shows and movies have depicted humans ditching meals for nutrition pills. In “Soylent Green,” it’s a switch we make out of necessity: Overconsumption has caused fresh produce to become scarce. A head of lettuce, two tomatoes and a leek retail for $279, and a sliver of beef is the ultimate luxury.
The general public is forced to live off products from the Soylent corporation, whose wares contain “high-energy vegetable concentrate” — and are dismissed by one elderly customer as “tasteless, odorless crud.” Its latest artificial meal is Soylent Green, a “miracle food of high-energy plankton gathered from the oceans of the world.” It proves popular enough to be rationed to a single day of sale per week, but as Thorn discovers, it’s not what it seems to be. (We won’t spoil the ending, though if you know anything about the film, it’s probably the horrifying revelation about Soylent Green.)
That grisly denouement didn’t deter crowdfunders from investing in software engineer Rob Rhinehart’s real-life Soylent meal replacements in 2013. Soylent today is available in powder and bar form. It “meets the Food and Drug Administration’s standards for a whole raft of healthy claims," Ars Technica reported in 2014. Soylent Nutrition did temporarily stop sales of its powders and bars in 2016 after reports of gastrointestinal illness were traced to the products’ use of flour made from algae — not plankton, exactly, but close. Today, Soylent is available to purchase online and in chains including Walmart and 7-Eleven, but it has yet to spark the same frenzied feeding riot of its namesake in the movie.
“Soylent Green” opens with photographs showing how modern Americans evolved from frock-coated settlers to fishermen, farmers and early town-dwellers. The slide show then blurs into a rush of cities with heaving sidewalks, smog-cloaked traffic jams and even Tokyo-style “professional pushers” cramming commuters onto subway trains. A title card tells us the population of New York City is 40 million; an exasperated Thorn at one point remarks, “There are 2 million guys out of work in Manhattan alone — just waiting for my job!”
There are similarities between the movie’s universe and life in the Big Apple today. Manhattan saw an influx of homeless residents last June when the city attempted to ease crowding in shelters. And as shown on screen, police can be efficient (or overzealous, depending on your perspective) when it comes to clearing protesters. (Predictions of rampant crime, mercifully, have not materialized: Thorn notes that the city logs 137 homicides per day, while NYPD’s CompStat report lists five from Dec. 27, 2021, to Jan. 2.)
The super-rich, however, get a better deal in reality than in the film, where they’re confined to living in the Chelsea West apartments if they want to keep away from the masses. Each door in the luxury tower block is automated, the penthouse butler is dressed in garish hunting pink, and the height of decadence is a fresh shower. Not exactly the private wine cellars and porte-cochere that you’ll find today in buildings such as 15 Central Park West.
Perhaps influenced by the 1972 heat wave in the Northeast and the first oil crisis of the early 1970s, “Soylent Green” imagines a sweltering future where the temperature never dips below 90. Margarine spoils in the fridge, and a sickly fog, similar to London’s historical “pea-soupers,” hangs in the air, forcing the city’s last remaining trees to be shielded under a tent. Whether these calamities are the fault of humankind or a natural disaster isn’t made clear, but in the source novel, it’s implied to be the former.
To Thorn, a scorched existence is normal — he grew up in the sticky 21st century, after all — but he’s still mesmerized when he discovers the wealthy murder victim’s fresh soap and an air conditioner than can make the room “cold, like winter used to be.”
Between the food shortages, staggering inequality, oppressive temperatures and stairwells lined with sleeping homeless people, life in “Soylent Green” isn’t a picnic. Perhaps that’s why authorities in the movie have legalized assisted dying.
One scene shows widows collecting “death benefits,” implying that your family will be rewarded if you opt out. It’s a moment that catches the eye of Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), who attends a clinic where he’s welcomed by a glamorous assistant. He’s asked to choose his favorite color and soundtrack, takes a mouthful of medicine and is placed in bed while an orderly pushes two buttons on a console. A wall-sized TV then plays a montage of pacifying imagery (grazing stag, golden dawns, rivers) as the character exchanges a tender “I love you” with Thorn. (Robinson himself would die 12 days after shooting wrapped.)
A controversial subject at the time, assisted dying is legal today in Canada, Colombia, Australia and parts of Europe. In 2018, 142 people traveled from Germany, France and Britain to Switzerland’s Dignitas facility to make use of the country’s physician-assisted suicide policy that does not set a minimum age, diagnosis requirement or qualifying symptoms.
While Thorn’s leisure time is spent savoring the beans, lettuce and apples he has pilfered from his latest crime scene, the elite of “Soylent Green” have a more novel way to unwind: video games. In the luxury apartment of a Soylent board member, a sleek cabinet contains Computer Space, which in real-life 1971 had become the very first coin-operated arcade game.
Thank goodness the 2022 we find ourselves in today offers a wider array of high-tech escapism. But is our world as bleak as the film predicted 49 years ago?
“Soylent Green” might not be the most unnerving look at tomorrow — that honor will forever be held by Mick Jackson’s “Threads” (1984) and its unflinching account of a nuclear holocaust — but it is one that guessed how ugly we might become if we continued to allow ourselves to be run by greed. Unlike in “Threads,” we’ve avoided pushing the big red launch button. We’re happy to keep pushing the buttons on our digital devices instead.
George Bass is a feature writer based in Britain who has contributed to the Guardian, the New York Times, the New Scientist and the Financial Times. Follow him @GeorgeBas5.