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Film / Soylent Green

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What is the secret of Soylent Green?
Do you really have to ask?

Detective Thorn

Soylent Green is a 1973 Science Fiction film directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Charlton Heston, loosely based on a 1966 Harry Harrison novel called Make Room! Make Room!. Everyone knows the big plot twist.

The year is 2022. Overpopulation has brought environmental and economic collapse. In New York City, pop. 40,000,000 (its current population is about 8 million, not much higher than in 1970), police detective Frank Thorn (Heston) is investigating the burglary-turned-murder of wealthy businessman William Simonson (Joseph Cotten), a board member of the food rations manufacturer Soylent Corporation. Based on the fact that there was valuable food and books left for him to steal, and that his bodyguard Fielding (Chuck Connors) and 'furniture' Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young) were conveniently away at the time, Thorn believes it to be an assassination. He gives Simonson's oceanographic survey (which he himself stole) to his roommate Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), a book collector, and they have a memorable scene cooking up the food he also stole from the late Mr. Simonson.

In his investigation, he discovers that Fielding has more money than his job would provide, thus placing him under suspicion. Thorn is then called off the investigation and put on riot control duty, where an attempt is made on his life. He manages to get the assassin crushed under a people-scooping bulldozer.

Roth, having uncovered a terrible secret in the oceanographic survey, has lost the will to live and decides to take government-sponsored euthanasia. Thorn finds him at the suicide clinic, just in time for Roth to tell him the secret with his dying words. He follows Roth's corpse along to a factory that processes the dead into soylent green biscuits. He makes a call to his chief, Hatcher (Brock Peters), and is unsuccessfully ambushed by Fielding who dies in the struggle. Severely wounded, he urges Hatcher to tell people the truth about Soylent Green, thus providing the famous quote.

Last film for Edward G. Robinson, who died of cancer 12 days after production wrapped.

For the trope previously known as the titular food, see Powered by a Forsaken Child, Human Resources.


  • Adaptation Name Change: Thorn was known as "Andy Rusch" in Harrison's novel.
  • Adorkable: Thorn during the dinner scene, especially when he mimics Sol wiping an apple on his shirt.
  • Alter Kocker: Sol Roth, a grumpy but charming N.Y. Jew who's seen better days.
  • Antagonistic Governor: Governor Santini is revealed to be in cahoots with the murder victim of the story, as they were once law partners. Santini orders the investigation closed, since further study would reveal the secret of Soylent Green.
  • Anti-Hero: Thorn has no qualms about Robbing the Dead or just in general helping himself to other people's stuff. Also, he Would Hit a Girl and, while he later comes to genuinely care about her, his first scene alone with Shirl apparently involves him bluntly ordering her to sleep with him. Still, he is committed to doing his job and is nice to his friends.
  • Artifact Title: In the original book, Soylent Green wasn't people but soy and lentils, hence the title.
  • The Beforetimes: When Thorn gets to see the (hidden) video Sol gets to see in the euthanasia clinic, he is shocked at what earth used to look like.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: The worst aspects of 1970s New York multiplied by 100 (at least).
  • Buxom Is Better: Implied. When asked if he has anything to report on Simonson's "furniture" (i.e. Shirl), Thorn's only response is to grin, gesture vaguely at his own torso and say "Like grapefruit!". Which is a little odd considering, as Hatcher notes, Thorn has never seen a grapefruit.
  • Covers Always Lie: Though more of misleading in this case. Once the "Riot Control" front end loaders arrive they lift groups of people so slowly you wonder why everyone isn't jumping right off. Possibly intentional. The riot scoops are just to get the rioters out of the way. If they jump and run off it's still done its job, but if they actually do end up arresting the people rioting for food, they'd have to feed them.
  • Crapsack World: You have people sleeping on every inch of the street, and even on the staircases of apartments, real food is expensive, there is a year long heat wave going on, not to mention the secret of Soylent Green...
  • Da Chief: Hatcher is an unusually laid-back example, but he still has the general look, rank and requisite "stop chasing this case" scene.
  • Downer Ending: Thorn is badly injured and may well die, but manages to tell dozens of people the secret of Soylent Green. Whether the secret will actually take root as public knowledge, and more importantly, what the public and United Nations will actually do with that knowledge (if anything) is left ambiguous. But it's irrelevant, given the sad state of the environment. With the oceans dead, the bulk of the world's oxygen supply is gone. Almost all of the world's natural resources are used up, too, and humanity appears to be headed for its final collapse.
  • Driven to Suicide: Sol hates what the world has become and mutters about how he should have "gone home" ages ago. He eventually decides the time has come when he finds out the entire ocean is devoid of life now and the human race is forced to eat its own dead to survive.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: Sol's euthanasia to the tune of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 ("Pastoral") is so quite beautiful and poetic that it manages to mask the sadness. It also doubles as a very fitting last scene for legendary actor Edward G. Robinson, who would die a few days later. Charlton Heston's tears in the scene were real, since only he had been told Robinson was dying, and the poignancy moved him.
  • Enemy Eats Your Lunch: As a logical extension of Kleptomaniac Hero, Thorn doesn't pass up the chance to help himself to the food he finds in the flats he visits. Considering the lack of food, if it hadn't been him it would have been somebody else.
  • Fascists' Bed Time: Only people with a permit are allowed in the streets after curfew.
  • Food Porn: In this Crapsack World, some salad, beef stew and bourbon is enough to classify the "Sol and Thorn dining" scene as this.
  • Future Food Is Artificial: Soylent red and yellow, along with buns and crumbs.
  • Gaia's Lament: Prime example. Earth in Soylent Green is dying, with a year-round heat wave and limited food supplies.
  • Green Aesop: Sol is particularly angry about the fact no one - including him - did anything to save the environment until it was too late.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation
    • Sol Roth loses his will to live when he discovers that the oceans are dying and Soylent has turned to making food out of people.
    • Thorn to a lesser extent, while he tells Hatcher the secret he is clearly in an emotional state.
    • The priest who took Simonson's confession is the clearest example of this, now roaming aimlessly around his parish in a detached, dazed state of mind, attempting only to do what he can to "make room" for the poor and needy who need beds and shelter.
  • Groin Attack: Thorn kicks Tab Fielding in the balls during their fight in Fielding's apartment.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.:
    • Sol, seeing an apple and some beef, is broken by seeing all this good food being so rare, asking "What have we come to?"
    • The priest whom Simonson implicitly told the secret of Soylent Green to before he died is in a permanent state of wandering around, mechanically doing his job and zoning out every time anyone tries to speak to him.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Sol and Thorn. They are the only two characters in the movie to tell each other "I love you".
  • Human Resources: Say it with us now: "Soylent Green is made of people."
  • I Ate WHAT?!: The Movie. Sol reacts to the discovery of what he's been eating by committing suicide. Thorn just goes a little bit nuts. It's been apparently been going on for years, since Shirl, a young woman, vaguely remembers funerals as "a ceremony".
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Everyone who eats Soylent Green is a cannibal.
  • Kleptomaniac Hero: The first thing Thorn does after entering somebody's home is steal anything edible, as the police are starving too.
  • Knowledge Broker: The Newspeak term for them is "Books". Sol is one.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Simonson's death was made to look like he was killed by some random burglar, but Thron sees right through it.
    "One: the alarm system in the building was out of order for the first time in two years. Two: the bodyguard who was supposed to be protecting him was conveniently out shopping. Three: the punk that broke into the apartment didn't take anything. And four: the punk who killed Simonson was no punk because he used a meat hook instead of a gun to make it look like a punk."
  • May Contain Evil: Downplayed, but the Soylent Corporation's newest, most popular food product does turn out to involve cannibalism.
  • Mega Corp.: The Soylent Corporation controls the food supply for half the world, and at least some of the government is in league with them.
  • Miracle Food: The Soylent Corporation produces cheap, nutritious food to sustain Earth's overpopulated masses. Subverted with the infamous revelation that "Soylent Green is people."
  • Missing Steps Plan: Thorn goes insane after discovering what Soylent Green really is, pleading the public to fight back, but Earth's biosphere is still dead. His actions will only trigger yet more rioting/violence as the masses seek to avoid cannibalism, and acquire real food, a short and limited stockpile for the rich. It could sustain thousands yes, but not millions, and never billions. If Earth's environment has any remote chance of recovery after the impending mass die-off, then Thorn has just killed that chance. The poor will drag the rich down with them to destruction. Mankind cannot survive.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Shirl struts her stuff in quite a few low cut dresses and takes it all off at least once or twice.
  • Morton's Fork: The populace is ultimately left with the choice of cannibalism or mass starvation.
  • Necessary Evil: Simonson saw his assassination as necessary.
  • Newspeak: Live-in prostitutes are called "furniture". Assisted suicide is referred to as "going home," as in to meet your maker.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: "What is the secret of Soylent Green?" just as they're showing body bags on a conveyor belt. It also spoils Roth's Death.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The film was made in 1973 and is set in 2022. Thorn looks to be in his forties and has no memories of when there was green vegetation or proper food. Apparently, the filmmakers expected their dystopia to materialize in less than ten years after the movie's release. This would be in keeping with other then-current predictions. For instance global overpopulation was going to cause starvation on a massive scale in the 1970s, oil and other vital resources run out in the 1980s and early 1990s, etc.
    • The book is just as bad. The world population in the book? Seven billion. One would think that the 35,000,000 people living in New York City would spread out. Not to mention that the current world population is estimated at 7.4 billion, and the US still has such a food surplus that it's routinely thrown out to make room for fresher ingredients.
      • Much of the "overpopulation" fears of both the book and movie were already being quelled at the time by the massive agricultural progress of the Green Revolution, which was vastly improving food production. However, the average person was not yet aware of these new technologies and processes, much less how immensely effective they would prove to be.
  • Used Future: Everything has a battered, lived-in, tumbling-down aesthetic.
  • We Will Have Euthanasia in the Future: "Going home" is a pretty standard practice.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Sol spouts "schmuck" and "l'chaim" all the time.