by Marcus Sakey
Not too long ago, I saw Soylent Green for the first time. It’s one of those iconic films that I’d somehow missed, probably at least partly because I was familiar with the catch phrase and figured it might be a one-trick movie.
It’s an interesting film. Dated, certainly—my friend Michael has a great line about how that happens with sci-fi, that “Nothing ages like the future”—and the film's misogyny is a little too hard-edge to write off as satirical. The basic premise is that the future is a pretty bleak, overcrowded place, with the masses barely kept alive by the miracle food Soylent Green, which, yes, is made of people.
What I found most interesting, though, is the way it treated suicide. Because the world is a teeming mass of humanity, the government encourages suicide, especially as people get older. There are advertisements for suicide centers, clinics that promise a smooth transition into death.
This being a story, of course one of the main characters ends up going to one. And as a savvy viewer, what I was expecting was the bait-and-switch: I figured that the moment he entered the clinic, he’d be handcuffed and lock-stepped, screaming, to the futuristic equivalent of a concentration camp shower. The problem with dystopia fiction is that it often pulls from the same bag of tricks.
What was interesting, though, is that I was completely wrong. The character was asked about his favorite colors, his favorite music. He was led to a gracious room where he lay down on a comfortable platform bed. Soft orange lighting—his favorite—filled the room, and a sunset screened on the wall. Two beautiful, serene people came in and stood holding his hands. Classical music swelled as he drifted painlessly away.
And then they made him into food.
The reason I bring it up, in this wildly odd post, is that it struck me as interesting how different my 2009 reaction was than the one I imagine was felt in 1973. The film is supposed to be a warning sign, a story about the future we should avoid at all costs.
Personally? It’s okay by me.
I’ve never understood our culture’s view of suicide. It has never made sense to me that ending your life with dignity and at a time of your choosing is anything but noble. Yes, it needs to be done with consideration for others, to be done in a way that doesn’t traumatize everyone dealing with the aftermath. But to me, suicide is as much a right as the decision to procreate. Why do I owe it to the world to linger on past the point where I enjoy life, or, worse, past the point where I can even be said to be myself? Some people are scared of heights; I’m petrified of dementia.
As for the eating people part, I’m not religious. I believe what’s left behind is meat. In reality our bodies are probably better used as organ donations than Thanksgiving dinner, but once you’re gone, I don't think you should get much say in what use the continuing world finds for you.
But besides my personal feelings about death, I also think it’s interesting the way the culture has changed. I doubt people seeing the film today would be shocked. That’s partly because other stories have tread the same ground. But I think it’s also a shift in the way we think. And for my money, a positive one.
What do you think? Should suicide be a right? Or is it a reprehensible act? If you’ve seen the film, how did you feel about those aspects? Do you feel differently now than you did then?