Follow TV Tropes


Film / Soylent Green

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

Detective Thorn

Soylent Green is a 1973 dystopian Science Fiction film directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Charlton Heston, loosely based on Harry Harrison's 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!

The year is 2022. Overpopulation has brought environmental and economic collapse. In New York City, pop. 40,000,000 (its population in the real 2022 was about 8.5 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 elderly roommate Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), a book collector who remembers happier times, and they have a memorable scene cooking up the food that Thorn also stole from the late Mr. Simonson.

In his investigation, Thorn 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 Sol to tell him the secret with his dying words. He follows Sol'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.

Soylent Green was the last film worked on by 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.
  • Adaptation Title Change: The movie was based on Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!.
  • Alter Kocker: Sol Roth, a grumpy but charming N.Y.C. 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.
  • Apocalypse How: The documents obtained by Sol show that due to a combination of overpopulation, unchecked industrialization, and the accompanying climate change, the oceans are now unable to support life of any kind, including the plankton from which the titular product is supposedly made, with the final outcome likely being a Class 5 or Class 6.
  • Apologetic Attacker: The assassin sent to kill William Simonson relays an apologetic message from the men who hired him (implied to be fellow board members of the Soylent Corporation). The assassin himself has no idea what the message means and is just doing what he's been told. Simonson himself is very understanding about his own demise.
    Gilbert: They told me to say that they were sorry. That you had become... unreliable.
    Simonson: That's true.
  • Artifact Title: In the original book, Soylent Green wasn't people but soy and lentils, hence the title.note 
  • Awful Truth: See the page quote. Mind you, the true horror isn't that Soylent Green is people, but that people are the only food left, since the oceans themselves are practically dead.
  • The Beforetimes: When Thorn gets to see the (hidden) video that Sol gets to see in the euthanasia clinic, he is shocked at what Earth used to look like.
    Sol: Isn't it beautiful?
    Thorn: (fighting back tears) Oh, yes.
    Sol: I told you.
    Thorn: How could I know? How could I ever imagine?
  • The Big Rotten Apple: The worst aspects of 1970s New York City multiplied by 100 (at least).
  • Bloodstained Glass Windows: The final showdown with Fielding is in a church.
  • Book Dumb: It's implied that almost everybody in the world is. Simple information gathering in the reference books is considered to be something a specialist "Book" should do, the only people shown reading the books are the people at the specially dedicated "Exchange", the education system is implied to be reduced to the basic skills only, and - if it's not just sarcasm - Thorn at one point actually asks Fielding if he can write. And all the people at the Exchange we're shown are old - meaning that on top of everything else wrong with that Crapsack World, the knowledgeable people who could have at least tried to still figure out something will die out even more quickly than the rest of the population.
  • Buxom Beauty Standard: 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 misleading in this case. Once the "Riot Control" front-end loaders arrive, they lift groups of people so slowly that 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 prohibitively 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.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Played for Drama. The harsh values of the world of 2022 – from the tolerance of euthanasia, to police being allowed to steal food from murder victims, to women being kept to live as prostitutes – are a sign of how desperate and hopeless society has become.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Once Sol learns the horrible truth about the poor state of the natural environment and the disgusting nature of the titular product, he loses the will to live.
  • Dirty Cop: Thorn is a downplayed version of this: he more or less does his job and tries to solve the Simonson case, but he has no problem stealing from a murder victim.
  • Downer Beginning: The opening titles show how the world got to be so crapsack, with extended focus on pollution and overpopulation.
  • 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 irrevocably 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 that the time has come when he finds out that the entire oceans are 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 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 that Robinson was dying, and the poignancy moved him.
  • Dystopia: By the year 2022, the cumulative effects of overpopulation, pollution, and some apparent climate catastrophe have caused severe worldwide shortages of food, water, and housing.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: We see the Sanitation Squad arrive to collect Simonson's body and cover it with a white sheet long before they do the same thing at the euthanasia clinic.
  • 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.
  • Extinct in the Future: Played for Drama. By 2022, the entire ocean's plankton which the Soylent made its foodstuffs from is dead. They're making food out of corpses because the situation is that desperate.
  • Exty Years from Publication: 2022 is fifty years after 1972, the year of the film's production. Of course, the actual release would be in 1973. Still, one original trailer does describe the setting as "fifty years from today."
  • Face Death with Dignity: Simonson is pretty chill about his own assassination.
  • Fallen States of America: The United States has gone from being a global economic power with rich farmland to an over-populated, resource-depleted wasteland that must turn its people into food just to stumble on.
  • 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 are enough to classify the "Sol and Thorn dining" scene as this.
  • From Bad to Worse: The movie opens in an overcrowded, resource-starved world, then it is revealed that the government is making food out of people, and then it turns out the oceans are dead.
  • 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, and even the oceans are dead, with all the plankton gone.
  • Global Warming: Greenhouse gases are mentioned to have played a role in the extinction of much of the earth's plant and animals.
  • Green Aesop: Sol is particularly angry that 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.
  • Guilt-Ridden Accomplice: This is why Simonson was knocked off by an agent of the Soylent Corporation: he was so troubled by his job, he confessed to a priest. His incredible calm toward his own impending execution implies that he was willing to accept death, because while he didn't want to live with the secret anymore, he believed that it needed to be kept for the good of society.
  • Heroic BSoD:
    • Sol, seeing a tomato, which he refers to by its more poetic nickname "love apple", and some beef, is broken by seeing all this good food being so rare, asking "How did we come to this ?"
    • 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 that 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".
  • How We Got Here: The movie begins with a photograph presentation of how mankind caused its own downfall by polluting the environment in favor of advances in economic progress and technology.
  • Human Resources: Say it with us now: "Soylent Green is made of people." Interestingly, the film takes into account the usual reasons this trope is unrealistic— cannibalism isn't a choice, but a last, desperate act by a species that's managed to kill off every more practical and energy-efficient food option.
  • 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.
  • Just Before the End: What the movie increasingly becomes toward the end, particularly as the full truth of the dire state of Earth's biosphere is revealed.
  • Kleptomaniac Hero: The first thing that Thorn does after entering somebody's home is steal anything edible, as the police are starving too. Based off his conversation with Thatcher, this is what police are expected to do.
  • 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 Thorn 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."
    • The same assassin later tries to shoot Thorn during a street riot. Backfired when he finds it difficult to hit his target while being jostled by rioters and he ends up being killed by accident just when he's got a clear shot.
  • May Contain Evil: Downplayed, but the Soylent Corporation's newest, most popular food product does turn out to involve cannibalism.
  • MegaCorp: The Soylent Corporation controls the food supply for half the world, and at least some of the government is in league with them.
  • Mercy Kill: A lot of people choose euthanasia ("going home") which is completely legal and freely available in special clinics. With the state of the world, it isn't difficult to see why.
  • The Metric System Is Here to Stay: In 2022 New York, people apparently use the metric system. A woman is angrily shouting about waiting in line for "a quarter of a kilo" of Soylent Green.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: The death of a businessman in an apparent burglary leads to a horrifying discovery about the food his company makes.
  • Miracle Food: The Soylent Corporation produces cheap, nutritious food to sustain Earth's overpopulated masses. Subverted with the invokedinfamous 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.
  • Morton's Fork: The biosphere is so destroyed that mankind is left with either mass starvation and extinction or cannibalism, which isn’t sustainable and will eventually lead to extinction.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Shirl struts her stuff in quite a few low cut dresses and takes it all off at least once or twice. Most of the other women wear similarly revealing outfits, with Martha, in particular, wearing nothing but a short bathrobe when she meets Thorn for the first time.
  • Mundane Luxury: Even the most basic goods, from cigarettes to jam, are expensive luxuries reserved for the wealthy. Notably, the situation has gotten so bad that this is the only kind of luxury available, even to the super-rich. The beef that Thorn steals is nothing special to the audience (the stew that they make is probably the best thing that could have been done with it), but it's "beef like you've never seen before" according to the grocer, a rare treat even for someone like Simonson, who is otherwise shown nibbling on a wafer of Soylent Green like anyone else. Governor Santini and his family go on a family outing to a "park" with a single tree and some grass. This becomes Played for Drama, as Sol, a man who remembers a more prosperous time, is crestfallen seeing things such as beef being so rare, as well as a sign of how dire the environmental situation is.
  • Necessarily Evil: Simonson saw his assassination as necessary and made no effort to run away or beg for his life.
  • Newspeak: Live-in prostitutes are called "furniture". Assisted suicide is referred to as "going home," as in to meet your maker.
  • No New Fashions in the Future: People still dress like it's the early 1970s, 50 years later.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Sol reminisces on the "good old days" often, much to Thorn's annoyance, who quips even people back then must have been "pure and good" too. Sol corrects him. People then were as rotten as they are today. But the Earth was beautiful.
  • Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap: A jar of strawberry jam will set you back $150, and not in the Ridiculous Future Inflation sense.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Thorn is shot in the leg in the riot, but has no sign of it even hurting later when he's beating up Fielding. Shirli bandages it later, and the dressing isn't even bloody.
  • Overpopulation Crisis: In this movie, humans have exploded in population numbers to the point where excessive consumption of resources has led to the pollution of our most essential fluids in life such as water, air, plants and animals that we need to breathe, eat and drink. Major cities like New York are overcrowded messes where people sleep shoulder to shoulder and have to wait in line for hours just to get a handful of Soylent Green chips. Earth is virtually a dead planet now and the movie shows the humans during the phase where they're going through a slow, painful extinction.
  • Personal Arcade: Possibly the Ur-Example – Somerson's apartment has a Computer Space standing cabinet.
  • Photo Montage: The opening credits show a stream of photos depicting the industrialization of America and how things got as bad as they did.
  • The Reveal: When Thorn goes into the factory and sees what is done with the bodies.
  • Scenery Gorn: Everything is old and broken, and it's quite impressive.
  • The Secret of Long Pork Pies: "Soylent Green is people!"
  • Senseless Phagia: Thorn steals a spoon that a woman is using to eat something out of a jar. He takes it home (with whatever is on it), and gives it to Sol to eat so he can tell him what it is (strawberry jam).
  • Shout-Out: A moment during the euthanasia scene seems to be a tribute to the painting "The Death of Socrates."
  • The Smart Guy: Simply by virtue of being one of the few literate people alive, Sol serves as this for Thorn, being able to read and resource complex information.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Beethoven's 6th (Pastoral) is played as Sol commits suicide. Also considering his exhaustion with a world that has become wretched over his lifetime, he might not be inclined to see it as dissonance .
  • This Is Gonna Suck: While working crowd control at the food distribution center, Thorn is quietly told by a colleague that the week's supply of Soylent Green is running out due to a mistake in the supply chain. They then go to discreetly inform the other cops before making the announcement, knowing this is going to trigger a riot.
  • 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 real world population in 2022 is estimated at 7.98 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. Roger Ebert positively noted this aspect in his 1973 review: "Soylent Green's real achievement is to create a 21st Century world that's convincing as reality; we somehow don't feel we're in a s-f picture. What director Fleischer and his technicians have done is to assume a very basic (and depressing) probability: that by the year 2022, New York City will look essentially as it does now, only 49 years older and more run-down."
  • Wham Line: Delivered by Detective Thorn to Hatcher:
    Thorn: The ocean's dying. Plankton's dying. It's people. Soylent Green is made out of people. They're making our food out of people. Next thing, they'll be breeding us like cattle for food. You've gotta tell them. You've gotta tell them!
  • Wham Shot: Thorn boards a truck transporting bodies from the euthanasia center to a recycling plant, where the secret is revealed – human corpses are being converted into Soylent Green.
  • We Will Have Euthanasia in the Future: "Going home" is a pretty standard practice.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Although seemingly in self-defense, Thorn violently attacks Fielding's furniture, Martha, after he confronts them over the attempt on his life during the riot.
  • Wretched Hive: New York City in 2022 is an overpopulated hellscape with food riots and crumbling apartments.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Sol spouts "schmuck" and "l'chaim" all the time.
  • You Have to Believe Me!: As Thorn is tended to by paramedics, he urges his police chief to spread the truth he has discovered and initiate proceedings against the company.


Soylent Green is People

Detective Thorn reveals the secret of Soylent Green.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (16 votes)

Example of:

Main / TheSecretOfLongPorkPies

Media sources: