'Soylent Green Is People!' Charlton Heston's Strange Sci-Fi Movie Quote
When Charlton Heston delivers the line "Soylent Green is people!" at the end of the film Soylent Green (1973), it's a clumsy collision of cinematic drama and science-fiction. Soylent Green looked at some serious real-world issues, like overpopulation, inequality, and scarcity of resources, and the future it depicted was a scary one. Yet with one hammy line -- just four words -- Heston tells us something we already knew, boiling down the sci-fi complexities to a childish simplicity.
"Soylent Green is people" is a movie line that lives on not because it is clever or even climactic -- it's just obvious and weird. Many aspiring screenwriters dream of coming up with something as perfect as Dirty Harry's tough talk or a Corleone-style euphemism. Few, if any, would hold up "Soylent Green is people" as a line worth emulating -- yet it's consistently listed as one of the most memorable lines in movie history.
It Had Foundations In A Bleak Philosophy
Soylent Green and the book it is based on are considered neo-Malthusian. Thomas Robert Malthus, an economist in the late 1700’s proposed that people multiply faster than the amounts of food and material available to them and unless population growth is checked my moral restraint, famine, or war, poverty and degradation would result. That is indeed the result in Soylent Green, where because of overpopulation, the masses live in poverty, and the only food they have to eat is soylent, a combination of natural and artificial foods, processed into crackers. Each day of the week, the masses are supposed to eat a different colored cracker; the colors denote what they are consuming.
The Movie Was Based On An Equally Grim Novel
Soylent Green was loosely on the 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison. In the novel, which was set in 1999 (not 2022, like the film), the Malthusian future, replete with overpopulation, pollution, and food shortages has come to fruition. The food is manufactured from soybeans and lentils, which lend their names to the food itself: soylent. In the book, as in the movie, the rich occupy lavish apartments while the poor struggle to find food and water, subsisting on the rations of the soylent crackers. When MGM bought the rights to Make Room! Make Room!, the screenwriter, did not seem to think that the focus on overpopulation was enough, and introduced the cannibalism aspect as well as the suicide parlor, furniture girls and chase scenes. The movie was also more focused on the murder investigation than the social and environmental implications of a world with too many people. Harrison, who had little input into the screenplay, was on set during filming and was able to amend the film to bring it closer to his original work. However, the screenplay differed substantially from Harrison’s novel, and Harrison vowed not to work with the film industry again, and he didn’t.
Lives Of The Rich And Their Mistresses
Against this dystopic vision of the future, Charlton Heston, as Detective Thorn, investigates the murder of a wealthy executive from the Soylent corporation. As he investigates, he begins a relationship with the dead businessman’s “furniture,” Shirl, played by Leigh Taylor-Young. The “furniture” is the term for women who are the permanent mistresses in the apartments of the rich. As Thorn works on his investigation, the lives of the rich are thrown into a sharp contrast with the impoverished masses; the wealthy have real food, air conditioning (a welcome relief from the heat outside), and reliable power. Thorn, meanwhile, lives with Sol, played by Edward G. Robinson, a man who still knows how to read and remembers the time before the dystopian 2022.
Treating People Like Garbage
Other scenes in the film throw this dystopia and the violent world into sharp relief: the masses trying to get their allotment of soylent, the machines that scoop up people on the street, the obvious pollution, and horrifying living conditions for the poor. When Sol discovers that the oceans are dead, he comes to the realization that the company is lying about soylent green; they claimed that it was made of plankton, but he figures out that the protein it is made from must be from another source. He cannot live with this knowledge and goes to the suicide parlor, where Thorn finds him as Sol watches images of the beauty of the world before the dystopia and listens to classical music. One of the last things he says to Thorn is that “people were always rotten, but the world was beautiful.” Thorn sets out to prove what Soylent is doing, and discovers that, as he says in the last and most memorable line of the film, “Soylent Green is people!”
The Line In Context
Charlton Heston delivers the famous line at the very end of the film. He's on a stretcher, speaking to the Chief of Police:
Det. Thorn: 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!
Hatcher: I promise, Tiger. I promise. I'll tell the Exchange.
Det. Thorn: You tell everybody. Listen to me, Hatcher. You've gotta tell them! Soylent Green is people! We've gotta stop them somehow!
And there it is, a famous line from a movie that wasn't a big hit. Why do we remember it, then? It could be because it's not a great line at all -- though it is grammatically correct, the singular verb with a plural predicate can sound weird. This could happen with any topic -- consider "Hamburger is cows!" or "The internet is websites!"
Thorn initially delivers a less awkward version of the line when he says "Soylent Green is made out of people!" But evidently that's too wordy for the high-adrenaline scene. And speaking of high-adrenaline -- this scene is supposed to be climactic and revelatory. Or at least, Thorn is revealing the big secret to the world. The problem is that the secret has been very obvious to the audience for some time. The shocking moments in the film thus lag behind what the audience already knows, which sucks the thrill out of a thriller.
By the time Charlton Heston screams, in his frenetic Hestonian manner, that "Soylent Green is people!" it has no real impact (and it sounds kind of funny) -- and then the movie is over.
The Film Was About More Than Cannibalism
There was a lot going on in the movie, from the rather twisted logic of eating their most abundant food source, to the criticisms of capitalism and the criticism of the capitalist solution to overpopulation and over-pollution, but the film was only moderately successful, and the critical reception was lukewarm at best.
The Point Was Lost On Reviewers
Time called it “intermittently interesting.” The review of the film in The New York Times said that it “projects essentially simple, muscular melodrama a good deal more effectively than it does the potential of man’s seemingly witless destruction of the earth’s resources,” and noted that “Mr. Heston is simply a rough cop chasing standard bad guys.” While The New York Times’ review criticized the portrayal of New York as “rarely convincingly real.” Roger Ebert, on the other hand, said that the film’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.” Ebert did note however, that it fell short and that the ending was not a surprise. Gene Siskel was more scathing, calling it “a silly detective yarn, full of juvenile Hollywood images. Wait ‘til you see the giant snow shovel scoop the police use to round up rowdies. You may never stop laughing.” Unfortunately, the bleak warning for the future does not live on, but the most famous line, a line which may seem a little silly, does.