The two main films about overpopulation — a much discussed subject in the seventies — are SOYLENT GREEN and Z.P.G.
I have been to one science fiction convention in my life, a thing called Ra Con (cartoon rabbit emblem) at the Grosvenor Hotel in Edinburgh, sometime in the eighties. I was fifteen or so. I didn’t know anyone, so I just wandered around amidst my fellow sensation-seekers, a bit alienated. I went to the film show and saw Svankmajer and Bunuel/Dali and Trnka shorts, which put me in quite an odd frame of mind.
Harry Harrison was a guest, and I believe I was already a fan of his Stainless Steel Rat novels about a master-criminal of the future who is recruited into a crime-busting outfit on the principle of “to catch a thief.”
SOYLENT GREEN was screened and Harrison, an irascible, twinkly, gnome-wizard hybrid, (in my memory a lot like Edward G Robinson in the movie) spoke about the differences between the film and his source novel, Make Room! make Room! He was genuinely exercised by the problem of the population explosion. “People say things like, ‘Oh, she’s been blessed with nine children.’ Blessed! She ought to have her fallopian tubes cut out!”
HH liked the same bits of the film I liked — the opening montage, which he seemed to indicate had been added at the last minute to rescue the film and make the point clearer, although it could be that it was always part of the plan and they simply didn’t tell him — the scene where Chuck Heston brings some real food home and he and Edward G. Robinson enjoy an actual meal “and Heston does some actual acting,” — and Robinson’s euthanasia scene. He was genuinely honoured to have Robinson, making his last screen appearance, in a film based on his work. And he made a vaguely lecherous remark about Leigh Taylor-Young.
(A year or so ago, Fiona was forced to call up the NHS’s 24 hour help line to consult on what seemed like a health crisis [and was]. The music they played was “light classical” — the sounds Robinson dies to.)
What Harrison didn’t like is the thing everybody talks about (spoiler alert) — “Soylent Green is made of p*****e!” He felt that was an exploitative, gimmicky, icky and unnecessary twist. In a sense it was put in to punch up a movie which was by its nature not so much sensationalistic as steadily downbeat. What would have made it less so, in his opinion, was deleted dialogue between the old folks, where they were to have offered up a solution — not to their problems, which had reached an irretrievable crisis, but to ours. Birth control! The one thing that could stop us reaching the dead end displayed in the movie, where we’re killing healthy old people to make room, and eating “tasteless, odourless crud” from tubes, and shoveling people up with bulldozers. But, afraid of alienating the Catholic audience, the studio chickened out and wouldn’t allow contraception to be mentioned or supported. You can have cannibalism but not condoms.
I tried to watch ZPG once before and it didn’t take — the movie seemed lifeless and joyless, even more depressive than SOYLENT GREEN (which has Robinson to at least rage against the dying of the light). It seemed quite humourless, though in fact it isn’t…
A more sympathetic viewing in fact showed quite a lot of dry wit, it’s just that the characters aren’t in on the joke. We’re in one of those strangely antiseptic future worlds of the kind SLEEPER makes fun of — everything is ultramodern and plastic and white. BLADE RUNNER really revolutionized that view by making the great leap and imagining that SOME of our stuff will still be around in forty years, it will just have more modern crap accrued on top of it. In ZPG, the future seems like a blank slate, even though the kind of skyscrapers we see are not too different from the kind we have now.
The details of this dystopia do, as I say, have a slight satiric bite, like the deliberately terrifying child-subsititute dolls (Super-Toys!) and the museum with stuffed cats and couples re-enacting swinging dinner parties of the seventies. The movie twice stages these soirees only to reveal that they’re happening in front of an audience in the museum, and both times I fell for the gag. Delightful. What makes the film seem humourless is that the characters aren’t in on the joke. In this world where childbirth is a capital offence, the broody Geraldine Chaplin and the brooding Oliver Reed have little to smile about, it’s true, but people do have a way of laughing in adversity, and it helps to make fictional character credible if they can step outside the seriousness of their situation and indulge in a joke. This happens precisely once in this movie.
In defiance of the edicts, Chaplin is up the duff, and canoodles with Reed while enumerating the months, weeks, days, hours minutes and seconds until her blessed event comes due. “Are you sure about the seconds?” he asks, whimsically. “Yes,” she replies, and adopts a robot voice: “A – computer – told – me.” Again, delightful, although maybe a bit Futurama. It feels like Chaplin is making a joke about the fact that she’s a character in a science fiction film. But it’s nevertheless a welcome break from the gloom. Reed would ask directors, “Do you want Moody 1, Moody 2 or Moody 3?” In this movie, he needn’t have asked. But there is something impressive about seeing all that bullish machismo wrapped up so tight in a civilized, repressed carapace. You fear he might burst at any moment, resulting in a dome-shaped explosion of testosterone impregnating everyone in its radius, like what happens in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.
Yay, seventies reptiles!
These two films, SOYLENT GREEN and ZPG, mark two extreme reactions to the population problem. In one, we do nothing about it and suffer dire consequences. In the other, we suffer massive ecological damage and then have to take such draconian action that the cure is as bad as the disease. Of course, only in a true totalitarian state could a “no-child policy” be implemented, and it seems unlikely to me that the rulers of such a state would want to follow the same rules as everyone else. I suspect the human race would passively, in a state of denial, choose extinction rather than submit to such a regime, and our democratic leaders would prefer a popular choice with a high chance of causing extinction than an unpopular one offering a solution. But ZPG can be seen as an allegorical warning rather than a literal one — if we are in danger of heading towards a catastrophe where the only solution is one we would never accept, dramatizing that by showing the solution in action is fair enough.
And then they end up in The Zone. Great.
Of course the other 70s film about population control is LOGAN’S RUN, another high concept that doesn’t make much sense. WILD IN THE STREETS and GAS-S-S-S! are more plausible, and more fun — maybe one of those explains how this future history without people over thirty came to be. LR works best as cheese, with a single moment of behavioral realism when Jenny Agutter, exposed to nature for the first time, cries “I hate Outside!” like a stroppy child on holiday. Like Geraldine Chaplin’s computer voice joke, it almost breaks the film by allowing a semblance of humanity in.