Soylent Green: Cyberpunk’s Horrifying Apotheosis

Soylent Green, believe it or not, is the pinnacle of the cyberpunk ethos, and not really about cannibalism (not entirely anyway). For those of you that have yet to watch the film, your cultural knowledge probably only extends to its final, climactic revelation: Soylent Green is people! The more you examine the context of those lines, and their full implication, the more you understand that the film’s message isn’t about a populace locked into desperation so complete that cannibalism is their only option. Rather the film’s true message about the illegitimacy of power and the mollification of a populace runs far deeper and more profound than its limited cultural impact would imply.

Soylent Punk 

While Soylent Green may not have artificial limbs or cyberspace, it adheres to the most fundamental ethos of cyberpunk, and takes that cynical philosophy to its absolute extreme. Soylent Green and cyberpunk share the core belief that mankind will not use technology to become better over time. Both cynically propose that the advances of technology will not liberate us, because the structures of power at work in our society are fundamentally broken. Soylent Green posits that no matter the circumstances, humanity’s insistence on its own pursuit of pleasure, through the mechanisms of acquiring power, will forever hamper our ascendency.  Power structures ossify once they are in place, the drive and ingenuity that gave them authority shifting to the toilsome oppression necessary to maintain that authority. In Soylent Green, those in power are no more noble or intelligent than the rest of us, but they are just as doomed, and by their own hands.

Into Dystopia 

Winner of both Nebula and Saturn awards the year it came out, the 1973 film is somewhat loosely based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! If you think that knowing the final lines will ruin this film, let me assure you that those words are only the capstone to a horror you see coming all the way, suffusing the atmosphere with a dread that will not leave you once you understand the real horror and threat at hand in Soylent Green.

If nothing else, the film is a fantastic time. It’s some of the best production design to come out of the 70s horror/dystopia film genre. Much like 1975’s Rollerball, which was fixated on manipulation of the masses through popular media, the film’s primary method of communication is in its profound unpleasantness. Every scene seems filthy, exuding a grime that you can feel as you watch it. Every person is too hot, every space too cramped, every conversation laden with deep unease. The air outside is itself an unnatural tinge, and it feels a marvel that its inhabitants can stand to subsist within these constraints at all. But subsist they do, living without a hope of thriving.

Following an undescribed ecological catastrophe, Earth now houses minimal plant and animal life, and the cities teem with restless bodies. Overpopulated well beyond capacity, having a place to live is itself a luxury, and the protagonist (hammed marvelously by Charlton Heston) lazily steps over human bodies on stairs, hallways, and streets. The largest open space we see in the film is only a few yards wide, an anemic conservatory of trees where few are allowed to tarry. Heston’s detective Thorn, just as the rest of the NYPD, are openly corrupt, conducting themselves through violence and theft without the barest hint of shame.

Thorn is first turned onto the murder of one of the city’s few powerful individuals, a board member of Soylent Industries. This corporation stands as one of the only pillars of authority left, by producing food for the wretched refuse of humanity. Its Soylent products are like the people they feed: processed, joyless, and ultimately based upon lies. These tasteless wafers are purported to be made of protein harvested from the oceans, but as you likely already suspect, this story has some holes in it.

At first, Thorn views this investigation as little more than an opportunity to rob the place blind, which he does, including having his way with the victim’s “furniture girl” Shirl. In what we come to realize is anything but an uncommon profession, her services come as a bonus for the luxury apartment. She comes with the place, and for the privilege of edible food and some space to herself she surrenders herself as an object to the inhabitant. While the film makes clear that her fate, devoid of choice and autonomy, is not only desirable in this dystopia, it’s also not where her society stops when it comes to turning its inhabitants into commodities.

What Thorn finds through the course of his investigation is the true source of Soylent Green, and likely all of the Soylent brands: the mountainous dead left behind by this crowded metropolis. With a populace already on the edge of rioting over food shortages, this revelation could rock the foundation on which its fragile order survives. But everything about the film suggests that it won’t. You see, the real horror of Soylent Green isn’t that people will start eating each other. It’s that they won’t even care when they have to.

Nothing Left to Lose

In her criticism of the film, Penelope Gilliatt of The New Yorker complained that “This pompously prophetic thing of a film hasn’t a brain in its beanbag. Where is democracy? Where is the popular vote? Where is women’s lib? Where are the uprising poor, who would have suspected what was happening in a moment?” The answer is that they’ve been left behind as hunger overtook them. The basic necessities of life became scarce, and so civil rights became an unnecessary fiction. There might be a mass of individuals, but all of them are inert. Despite their ubiquity, they are completely powerless because they refuse to acknowledge themselves as worthy of anything but continuing to live at any price. They already have no rights in this dystopian vision. They have no space, no privacy. No hope of anything better. There isn’t really anything better to have in this world, except a scrap of space and food that isn’t people.

All of these realities are an outlay of the power denied to these individuals, a power that now rests in the hands of Soylent Industries. This is where the cyberpunk message of the film most rings true: at this point, the Soylent megacorp’s power is so enormous and ubiquitous that even with full knowledge of the evils on which it subsists, there isn’t anything anyone can do to practically stop them. With overpopulation as advanced as it is in this film, where else will the food come from? What difference does it make anyway, as processed as it is? How easy would it be to forget what it is and where it comes from, if there isn’t any other practical choice?

Those few decisionmakers we see in Soylent Green are afflicted by the same shortsightedness of all those in power. Yes, the weight of the world population hangs over them, but they never discuss or mention any attempt at solving the problem. Their only concern is the solidification of their own power, by any means or resources necessary. The shortsightedness of those with the most authority extends only towards the moment. As long as they have the most, they are satisfied with it, even if that mentality actively destroys the world around them. They limit the extent of their own power because they cannot truly create or improve, only repurpose, manipulate, and consume. This is the price of a mollified, ignorant populace who depends on their subsistence from a monolithic entity that views them as nothing more than commodities and customers. This, whether it looks like it or not, is cyberpunk.

Soylent Today, Soylent Now

Now, I know what you’re thinking: this isn’t cyberpunk at all! Where’s the technology! Where’s all the glitz and advancement to make this future cool! But the future posited by Soylent Green is defined by its technology. The only difference between its grimy alleyways and the neon signs you are picturing is in the basic assumption that technology will do anything to make the average life better. The world of Soylent Green does contain technological advancements, but those advancements have been bent completely towards suppression of the populace.

Technology in Soylent Green is distinctly manipulative and violent, and designed towards keeping the populace controlled. Desperate as the situation is, entertainment has been largely ignored as a necessity. After all, when bread is in short enough supply, who has need of circuses? When a food shortage threatens a riot, the body armor-clad police call in the Cleaners, enormous pieces of construction equipment that unceremoniously scoop up scores of people and pours them into their metallic tanks, to be processed later. The government has set up one place of comfort and warmth, with tailor-made experiences to calm the weary masses: suicide chambers, advertised to citizens as the only place to ease their burden of living. Only in these chambers can people be comfortable and alone. But comfort and the need to reduce population are clear secondary goals to these chambers, which deposit the remains of their work in the processing plants where untold thousands of people are reduced to tasteless green squares. Its workings are surprisingly mundane, people going about their business in the shadow of hulking pipelines of machinery, turning organic matter into something to be traded and consumed.

But there is one more crucial way that technology is used as a tool of manipulation: as a broken promise. Yes, there is an active disinformation campaign that keeps the truth from coming out, but its methods are as mundane as they have always been. The same tired lies told over and over again become the truth, a truth that never comes into question until the events of the film. Key to this disinformation campaign are the falsified means of producing Soylent. Its creators claim extraordinary powers, stating that they can feed a global populace by advances in harvesting and processing ocean water. It’s a lie, but an easy one to believe. With the average person’s knowledge of science and its advancements critically low, all they need is a basic explanation and they will trust the esoteric secrets of technology and that it can solve anything. They think this even when faced with proof that it isn’t true, as bodies litter the stairways, as the air chokes with smog, and even as the food starts to run low.

Soylent Green isn’t people, because in the world it posits people themselves have ceased to be people. Soylent Green is all we are anymore: a cheap commodity. It’s the argument that the end of the world is for us to be another product. Soylent Green isn’t about the future. It’s about the atrocities that we accept at the present. Nothing will ever change because nothing has ever changed. Ever since we joined the leviathan, we have been on the same course, handing over our rights, our dreams, and our very bodies to powers that care nothing for our quality of life, and sees no sanctity to our existence.

This, in all its terror, is cyberpunk taken to its extreme: it posits that everything good about technology will be cast aside as unnecessary. There will be no need for holo-suits and tailor made drugs, no expanses of cyberspace to be lost in, and no designer limbs to fix the injuries of pointless wars. All of these things will be left behind as we pursue basic, animalistic ends: eating, reproducing, dying, until they all merge into one another to become meaningless. This hopeless cynical grime is all that awaits us if we put our hope in megacorporations and new technologies.

When you break it down, all that’s left is hunger.

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