Tom's Column - February/March 22
DiCaprio Meets Cannibalism As 2022 Begins… by Tom Beasley
One of the first movies I watched this year was set in 2022. In fact, a lot of you will be familiar with it and might have seen it many years ago. The film is the 1973 sci-fi thriller Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston. It has been sat on my DVD shelf for a few years now and, having seen some chatter on Twitter about its 2022 setting, I decided to pop it in and have a watch.
For those who are not familiar, the movie is set in a dystopian vision of New York City in 2022, where the population has ballooned in size and the city has been damaged by pollution, as well as the unsustainable numbers of people. With agriculture nearly impossible, real food is largely an expensive luxury for the rich and powerful, leaving the masses to be fed by artificial nutrition squares made by the Soylent company – most notably the universally adored, highly nutritious and purportedly plankton-based Soylent Green.
Charlton Heston's character is a detective investigating the murder of an exceedingly wealthy bloke connected to the Soylent corporation, who is harbouring a secret about the company. If you're allergic to spoilers about a very famous 50-year-old film, then look away now, but the secret is that Soylent Green is not made out of plankton. Ocean pollution has killed off all of the tiny organisms, with Soylent Green actually made from the bodies of dead humans.
It's a grotesque vision and boasts a dystopian sense of nihilism common at a time when the 21st century still felt like a suitable venue for near-future fiction. See also: Blade Runner and Terminator 2. But it's fascinating to watch it in a modern context. On the face of it, we're a long way from the society depicted in Soylent Green, but in some ways we're well on our way there. Climate scientists consistently put forward narratives of forthcoming doom, only to be ignored by most people. There's a sense in some quarters that the climate is a problem for the future – not for today.
A few days before I settled down to watch Soylent Green, I had also taken the plunge on the new Netflix satire Don't Look Up. Starring just about every famous face in Hollywood – with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in the lead roles – it uses scientific warnings of a planet-destroying comet as an allegory for the way systems of power have found it convenient to minimise entirely valid and wholly evidence-based prophesies of doom. The film has prompted fierce debate, with its many admirers – including in the scientific community – accusing critics who disliked it of ignoring the very real subject matter lurking beneath its brash surface. I'm on the fence as to its quality as a movie, but there's no denying the validity of its message.
The reason I bring up these two films is that it's fascinating to see the way similar ideas have shifted in the half-century between their releases. Don't Look Up is a defiantly unsubtle movie, reflecting the urgency with which it pushes forward its ideas. Soylent Green, in contrast, essentially uses its very real concerns as a backdrop for a simple, unshowy conspiracy thriller. But 50 years on, the luxury of time has disappeared. Action is now urgent, which explains the amped-up tone of Adam McKay's A-list comedy. It certainly can't be accused of underselling the threat.
Art always reflects the context of the society in which it is made, whether that's literature, painting, music or cinema. In the gap between Soylent Green and Don't Look Up, that context has become urgent, vital and about as subtle as Leonardo DiCaprio yelling in your face. So as we move into 2022, it's worth taking note of what we can all do to help the climate. After all, nobody wants to end up eating a small, green square made of Carol from next door.
© 2022 Tom Beasley
The opinions expressed in this article are personal to Tom Beasley. Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist living just outside London and originally from Coventry. He can be reached at email@example.com.