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.

Leave a Reply