Friday, April 19, 2013

Peering into the (Now) Not-So-Distant Future?

"It's the year 2022 ... People are still the same. They'll do anything to get what they need. And they need SOYLENT GREEN."

Theatrical tagline

Five years ago, after Charlton Heston died, I remember hearing radio accounts when I was driving to work.

Those reports focused mainly on the high points of his acting career, as such reports tend to do when a prominent actor or actress dies — "Ben–Hur," "The Ten Commandments," "Planet of the Apes" and "Soylent Green."

It was the last two that contributed the most recognizable sound clips, and I heard them over and over. Especially from "Soylent Green."

In case you never saw the movie, let me try to briefly summarize it for you.

Set in an overpopulated future in which many, if not most, natural resources have been depleted, the key to survival is consumption of processed food, notably a product called Soylent Green.

The movie was set at a time that was roughly 50 years in the future. Since today is the 40th anniversary of the movie's release, it is safe to say that it was describing a future that is now less than a decade away.

Clearly, it may not be true. But we are closer to finding out. Much closer.

If it is true, population growth in the coming decade will be astonishing. In the movie, set in the year 2022, New York City is about five times larger than it is today. If that math holds up across the board, the U.S. population will be well over 1 billion people in nine years.

No wonder the earth's resources were mostly depleted.

The story began as a police investigation into a murder, but it rapidly morphed into a science fiction tale.

The murder victim was the director of Soylent Corporation, the maker of Soylent Green and its predecessors, and Heston played the investigator in the case. Among the first people he interviewed were the victim's kept woman, played by Leigh Taylor–Young, and his bodyguard, played by Chuck Connors.

Heston suspected the murder had been planned, that it was not a burglary that went horribly awry. There was no indication that anything was missing. The security cameras and the alarm system had not been triggered as they would have been if there had been an intruder.

And the bodyguard was away at the time, escorting the kept woman to a place that sold meat under the counter.

In the course of his investigation, Heston discovered that Soylent Green, which was supposed to be made from plankton from the sea, was, in fact, produced with human remains. His elderly roommate (Edward G. Robinson in his final movie role) couldn't live with that knowledge and his memories of what life had been like. So he chose assisted suicide.

It was a fascinating world that was depicted in "Soylent Green" — fascinating as much, I suppose, for what it did not say as for what it did.

Made at a time that was arguably at or very near the dawn of the modern feminist movement, it did not paint a very rosy picture for the future of feminism. The dead man's mistress was called "furniture."

That was the slang term for a concubine in the 21st century — according to this particular account.

And it says so much about how society viewed women in this vision of the future.

Granted, Taylor–Young was quite beautiful — and, in 1973, she was hardly a household name although she had been in more than half a dozen movies since bursting onto the scene five years earlier with an endearingly quirky performance in "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas" — but being known as "furniture" really doesn't leave much room for personal growth, does it?

I guess feminism went out the window along with the food supply in the fictional 21st century. If "Soylent Green" is going to prove to be prophetic, though, feminism is going to have to decline considerably in the next decade.

Robinson gave a touching performance, and that, I thought, added a much–needed emotional understatement, especially standing, as it did, in stark contrast with Heston's rather hammy overacting — on display in his delivery of the line everyone remembers from this movie ...

"Soylent Green is people!"