Report Card: Soylent Green (1973)

The report card, as detailed in the post

Read all the Soylent Greens posts in chronological order.

Soylent Green left a huge mark on popular culture. It’s entirely possible I’m skewed by my nerd circle of friends but I’d wager every single one of them know the phrase “It’s made of people!” even if they couldn’t name the source. Heck, it was parodied on The Simpsons, which is its own mark of cultural currency.

If you couldn’t tell by my tone in the reviews (and I was not hiding it) while I appreciate the film, I can’t say I like it. Our protagonist is a wretched bully, though Heston plays him as a hero; the worldbuilding is inconsistent and writing full of holes; its Malthusian intent squicks me out.

Not sure why MGM made Heston a bobblehead, but there it is.

At the same time I think many of its themes are very, very important and even more pressing today than they were in 1973:

  • Unchecked oligarchy and corporatism self-interesting us into the Anthropocene
  • Environmental collapse
  • Ecological collapse
  • Social collapse
  • Cops are violent thugs
  • The dehumanization of a populace by authoritarians
  • Food and water scarcity
  • Etc. etc.

I think it warrants a modern reboot, and offers the opportunity to rethink these themes in the information age. It would be interesting to see a writer rethink it without hinging it all on The Big Secret. Or, diegetically, a post-information age. It would be cool to see the Thanatorium with an even starker frontstage/backstage dichotomy, á la Westworld.

If it does get a reboot, it will be an opportunity to rethink its service and interaction design as well. Because little of it fares well on close inspection.

Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

The patient’s experience is missing some important stuff, but the intake questionnaire that informs it is missing tons of things that would be needed for the service, the beneficiary’s interface has stuff it shouldn’t, the attendants’ interface makes no sense, and worst of all, the usher’s interface is deeply lacking in the controls it needs to make what we see happen happen. All of it has to be “read” for what it is meant to be rather than what it is, and that takes modern audiences out of the experience.

Fi: D (1 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

Certainly the speculative service helps sell the notion of a culture so inured to collapse that they would make it (far too) easy to commit suicide. We understand that only Thorn can hear Sol’s dying words, even if the why is utterly confounding. The warmth of the front stage workers belies the horrible truth of the back stage. None of it is particularly well art directed, other than it does feel like it was cobbled together with stuff in a bunch of 1970s garages (which kind of works, diegetically, I guess, but not enough to save it). So they don’t really help with the narrative as much as they could.

It’s worth noting that this was Edward G. Robinson’s last film. He died two weeks after wrapping his scenes, making his fictional death scene even more poignant. But that doesn’t raise the grade because that has nothing to do with the design, just our respect for the talented actor.

Interfaces: F (0 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Because they’re not believable, they don’t equip anyone for their goals, even though, of course the actors act as if they do.

  • The beneficiaries are treated like hostile witnesses rather than wishing to see a loved one off (without having to see all the dehumanizing backstage tech)
  • The usher doesn’t have the controls they need in the place they need it to ensure that things go smoothly, displays to show whether he’s meeting the ecstasy meet quota (if you’re into that backworlding), or even a panic button for when beneficiaries get hostile, as we see one do.
  • The attendants have all the analog tools to get the patient in place and comfortable and…uh…dying properly, but not the technological ones to ensure that the patient’s vital signs are being read.
  • The patient is the closest one with a desireable experience, but the movie completely sidesteps the need for privacy and human connection, and misses some important worldbuilding opportunities.

Even in its time it was not thought out thoroughly, and today we have much better channels for service delivery and much more sophistication around designing for it.

Final Grade F (1 of 12), Dreck.

The report card, as detailed in the post

Enjoy this film for its cultural currency and some of its themes, but steer clear of it for its design.

Unlike this amazing glow-in-the-friggin-dark poster by Matt Ferguson, which is excellently designed. Oh and don’t believe the linked tweet. Is it for sale at the time this post was written. It’s just very, very expensive. I am accepting donations.

Now that 2022 is almost behind us, we can breathe a small sigh of relief that Soylent Green is not true here in the year it was meant to take place. But let’s not pat ourself on the environmental back yet, we are still heading for a 2.4°C scenario and despite the small-seeming number, that’s disastrous. So no resting on laurels. There is still work to be done at a planetary level to avoid a collapse scenario where we are forced to choose between cannibalism and suicide by cinema.

Comments now open.

The baby in the Thanatorium bathwater

Throughout the reviews of Soylent Green, I have been cautious to stick to the movie, to the interface and service design. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to tease apart one of the complex, real-world ethical questions head-on.

The Thanatorium is the singular speculative technology in Soylent Green. The film contrasts the services’ caring facade with its deceptive, exploitative, cannibalist true nature. This Big Twist was played for shock: the film ends right after Thorn, shot and bleeding out, shouts his famous line “Soylent Green is people! We’ve got to stop them somehow!”, so if there is any effect from his murderous investigative journalism, i.e. any change, it is unaddressed. The film only cares about *gasp* its tabloid zinger. (Yes I’m aware of a cut scene in which Soylent and the government issue retractions. That scene was, as mentioned, cut.)

Note that the Thanatorium visuals are also used extradiegetically to get the audience to re-appreciate their own lives and ecology. (I am still searching for a name for this literary device.) We are given 73 minutes of bleak, dirty, sweaty oppression, and breathe a sigh of relief when we are shown images of sunlit tulips and pristine nature, inspiring us after the movie is over to to go outside, hug a fruit tree and a bee, and think, “My gods. We just can’t let Soylent Green happen.” So it wasn’t just shock, but I digress.

As we rightly reject the Thanatorium’s deception, oligarchical exploitation of the working classes, and of course, cannibalism; let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is something in there that is worth considering.

Since I’m not a bioethicist, I’m going to lean on Matthew Burnstein’s essay “The Thanatoria of Soylent Green: On Reconciling the Good Life with the Good Death” in Bioethics at the Movies, ed. Sandra Shapshay (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009): 275-94. In it Burnstein points out that “the good life”—on which much of Western philosophy focuses—depends on what he calls the mastery model. That is, a moral actor must have agency, and use that agency well, before we can call theirs a good life. Burnstein points out that this model operates from our adolescence throughout our lives (up to a point, read on) and even after our life, in that our possessions and remains are handled in the manner we specify. We can specify a good after-death.

But there is a curious carve-out for death itself. It is good to build mastery over your life, we say, so you can lead a good one. It is good to exhibit mastery over one’s things after your life, we say. But the manner of your death? No no no. You must not choose that. Psychologists and physicians are the only ones who can make that call for you, and only in certain circumstances. Burnstein calls this carve-out “moral gerrymandering,” and it’s a pretty illuminating phrase: Why would we not apply the mastery model here?

There are good reasons to take caution with permitting “easy” suicide, putting aside supernatural objections as well as the obvious need to prevent murders that are disguised as suicide.

Suicide is an irreversible decision, and sometimes our perceptions of things in the moment are exaggerated and even wrong. What feels like hopelessness may improve if we just gave it time. It would be tragic if a person gave into the grip of temporary despair with an irreversible decision, and never got a chance to change their story. So, yes, we should put some guidelines around such an act. We should provide universal mental health care and try to ensure that people are in crises have places to turn. But the moral gerrymandering around death means that we most often forbid suicide outright, and when it is permitted, it’s prohibitively constrained.

CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In my home country of the USA, there are currently 11 states that permit physician-assisted suicide (PAS). (Around the world PAS is legal in a number of countries, but I am less familiar with those laws even in passing.) The rules around PAS are deliberately restrictive. You have to prove you are of sound mind and that your incurable disease will kill you within 6 months. A person with a slow-burn incurable disease—especially one where the mind will go before the body—is mostly doomed to just…suffer through it, at emotional and financial toll to themselves and their loved ones. There are Patient Instructions/Advance Directives that people can use to clearly state directives for medical instructions for different situations, but one cannot issue a directive that breaks the law, like asking for euthanasia, and drawing up legal documents can be financially prohibitive. So for many there are still massive impediments to having death with dignity, or what Burnstein calls “the good death.”

A dear friend of mine is going through this very thing right now with a loved one, and while it’s not my place to tell their story, it is heart-wrenching and inhumane to hear play out.

There are some good real-world models. Dignitas is an association in Switzerland that offers life counseling and death with dignity services according to Swiss law. Travel can be prohibitively costly for anyone who does not already live there, and any person who is present with them at the time of their death may face harsh legal consequences upon returning home. It would be more humane if other jurisdictions would take steps towards enabling their own death with dignity policies, and undoing the moral gerrymandering that says we must only die according to the dictates of chance.

Oh bad news, it looks like Nerve Attenuation Syndrome.
Welp, that will cause suffering and bankrupt your family slowly over a decade, but the dice are what they are.

Even in the misguided Malthusian fiction that is Soylent Green, what is presented as a horror is quite rational. Without the thanatorium, Sol has a Sophie’s Choice between starvation and cannibalism. A gentle, pleasant suicide is a welcome third option. What is wicked in this speculative service is that they use his cadaver without his consent and hide the truth of their product from the population at large, so that oligarchs on “the board” can continue to live out the last days of the earth enjoying showers, exploited sex workers, air conditioning, and food that is not made of humans. In short; It’s the oligarchy, not the suicide services, that is the villain, though the film spends its calories on the shockeroo moment.

Oh nooooo.

When considering this model for the real world, we should take great exception to the no-questions-asked expediency seen in Soylent Green. We would want such a service to be slow, deliberative, and life-affirming, with counseling and assistance programs to help people overcome crises of all sorts and palliative care. (As Dignitas does.) And then, yes, additionally, self-determination suicide services. But not walk-in “suicide booth” stuff.

So as we put the reviews of Soylent Green to rest, let’s not take that shock at face value. The Thanatorium—without the casual expediency, deception, cannibalism, and oligarchy—is a model worth considering.