Apocalypse now: the classic sci-fi films that predicted the future

Soylent Green
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How films such as Soylent Green, Children Of Men and Idiocracy are feeling just a little bit on the nose in the current world.

As is the case recently, 2022 was greeted with an excitement and optimism that sputtered out after three days like a water-damaged firework. There are reasons to be happy we have got here. The Mayan calendar predicted the world would end in 2012, so we are 10 years clear of that. Even if viewers in 2009 watching the disaster flick 2012 most likely prayed for a Don’t Look Up-alike planet-killing comet to end the anguish there and then.

Yet 2022 continues the irksome, worrying trend of proving past Hollywood doomsayers correct. Specifically, the 1973 Charlton Heston movie Soylent Green, based on the 1966 Harry Harrison novel, Make Room! Make Room!.


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“It’s the year 2022…” announces the film’s poster, “People are still the same. They’ll do anything to get what they need. And they need SOYLENT GREEN.”

The film centres around Charlton Heston’s cop, Detective Thorn, investigating the assassination of a prominent corporate executive. The murder appears to be a bungled robbery, but Thorn smells conspiracy. The plot is engaging enough, Richard Fleischer’s direction swift and no-nonsense, and Heston has quality support from Joseph Cotten, Edward G. Robinson, and Brock Peters.

But what impresses about Soylent Green is that the filmmakers clearly did their homework, predicting where we would be headed. Due to climate catastrophe, the New York City of the film is locked in a permanent heatwave. So re-watching it days after 2022’s New Year’s Day was declared the hottest on record in the UK made for warm under the collar viewing. Seeing a sweat-sheened Charlton Heston bemoaning “the greenhouse effect” in a near-50-year-old movie is eerie indeed.

Soylent Green’s overpopulated society is split into the masses, literally living on top of each other and scrabbling for a dwindling number of jobs, and the elite, who reside in spacious, gated, guarded communities. Organic food goes for exorbitantly high prices: $150 for one jar of strawberries, anyone? We are not saying Whole Foods is there yet, but some of those prices…

Most characters survive on processed food, mass produced by the Soylent corporation and including the popular Soylent Green, a hi-energy food derived from… “plankton.”

Politicians have become caretakers maintaining the status quo, and civil unrest is put down with force. A food riot recalls the early days of Covid panic-buying, although not even this film could predict the Andrex Wars of 2020.

Soylent Green

Soylent Green

As Priti Patel vows to curb eco-protests and asylum appeals, maybe she would view the police-commandeered garbage trucks scooping up dissenting citizens with envious eyes? Dialogue about food shortages due to transportation issues inevitably summons images of tailbacks in Kent.

One of the most disturbing elements in Soylent Green is the female characters’ commodification of themselves. To escape a life of misery, attractive women become “furniture” in the apartments of the (male) elite, with all the suggested dark connotations. The rise of social media influencers and sites such as Only Fans seems to have trace elements of this idea. After all, we now live in a world where a reality TV star made $200,000 selling her farts in jars, but was subsequently hospitalised due to her gas-inducing diet. Which probably didn’t do much good for greenhouse emission targets either.

And predictably, sex in Soylent Green is as joyless as trawling the gazillion (estimated figure) clips on Pornhub. Even the conspiracy plotline, which in 1973 resonated with a society rocked by the JFK assassination and Watergate, now vibes with a world in sway to deluded theories about bio-chips in vaccines, JFK Jr. still being alive, and baby-eating Democrats.

Viewers today may be amused by an absence of screens in the film. Charlton Heston’s cop has a “book” to help him investigate cases, an educated man who is essentially Google with a pulse. This “book,” played by Hollywood legend Edward G. Robinson in his final role, hits the journals and records rather than the keyboard. Which may look quaint until you realise electricity in the film is also rationed, and the UK is facing soaring energy prices. To keep the lights on, Robinson’s character gets on his bike to charge pedal-powered batteries. A government spinning that into a new fitness craze is not beyond the limits of imagination.

Soylent Green is not the only classic sci-fi film to predict the road we are travelling. Apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic movies are currently in vogue, but for decades cinema has done a good impersonation of Cassandra in Greek mythology, foreseeing the future but remaining powerless to change it.

Children Of Men

Children Of Men

Yes, Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men knew digital billboards would become commonplace. But, it also recognised an entrenched anti-immigration sentiment in various parts of the UK, which could be exploited by unscrupulous policy makers. 10 years later came Brexit. Like Soylent Green, Children of Men features the notion of state-assisted suicide to release people from their misery… hopefully both films prove wide of the mark there.

1984 may be the granddaddy (or Big Brother) of dystopian future tales, but its prediction of a ruthlessly efficient totalitarian British government now seems fanciful. Rather, we have ended up in the world of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil, with an incompetent state apparatus run by public schoolboys for personal gain. The constant arse-covering of politicians and mid-level bureaucrats in Brazil also seems familiar. As do the constant ‘cost-saving efficiencies,’ which in one scene means the film’s hero has half an office with half a desk.

Set at Christmas, Gilliam’s film features a store Santa asking a little girl what she wants. “My own credit card!” she replies. Remember when that was just funny, rather than a plausible tween lifestyle aspiration?

Peppering Brazil are bored society women addicted to plastic surgery. Sci-fi movies have long known that as technology improves, we will grow frustrated with our disappointing flesh suits. Back in 1966, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, based on a 1962 novel, saw a bored middle-aged banker undergo radical surgery and become “reborn” as Rock Hudson. All too soon he discovers a beautiful surface cannot resolve the problems that lie beneath.

Plastic surgery has been tucking n’ slicing for decades, but recently entered an ‘exciting’ new phase thanks to “Instagram Face” and “Snapchat Dysmorphia.” Apps filter us to an idealised image, and with cosmetic surgery more affordable than ever, surgeons are being asked to “make me look like the photo.” We predict those filtered-for-real will be no more satisfied than the banker from Seconds.

Anti-science and anti-history and “alternative facts” are now so commonplace, it seems redundant to say movies predicted our plunge into an anti-Renaissance. But, François Truffaut’s 1966 Fahrenheit 451 (based on Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel) warned of a future in which books are outlawed, “firemen” burn any that are found, and a bovine population is hooked on “interactive” TV. In a nice touch, even the film’s credits are read aloud rather than appearing on screen. A 2018 HBO update, set after a second American Civil War, should have been a guaranteed success but failed to set the screen alight.

These ideas were not new; in 1895 H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine featured a devolved humankind. Of the movie adaptations, most notable are the 1960 and 2002 versions, but neither you will want to watch time and time again.

40 years after Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 was Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, a film with the unnerving habit of becoming more relevant with each passing year. In a riff on Rip Van Winkle, Luke Wilson is a soldier cryogenically frozen as part of a scientific experiment. Subsequently forgotten, he awakens 500 years later into a nightmare world. Standardised education is a thing of the past, corporations sponsor everything, including courts and hospitals, energy drinks are used in crop irrigation, and the country is glued to the hit reality show, “Ow, My Balls!”



On a side-note, Hollywood has often called the evolution of reality TV. Sure, there is The Truman Show, but Schwarzenegger’s The Running Man no longer looks as outrageous as it did in 1987.

Idiocracy’s most chilling prophecy came in the form of Terry Crews’ ex-pornstar, ex-wrestler US President, Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. During the 2016 US election, it was impossible not to think of Idiocracy as Trump wooed voters. Although Mike Judge dismisses claims that he called it, telling Time magazine, “I’m no prophet, I was off by 490 years.”

With its vision of an overpopulated world of mass unemployment, pollution and processed foods, Idiocracy resembles Soylent Green with a comedy makeover. Yet as we now live on a planet where, to repeat, a reality star made two-hundred-thousand dollars selling her farts in jars, Judge’s film is beginning to resemble a documentary. For years after its release in 1982, Blade Runner was how we believed a dystopian future would look. But flying cars, lifelike androids, commercial space travel, and roomy apartments for those stuck on Earth? We should be so lucky.

All of which leaves one question: what exactly is Soylent Green? For the three people out there who have never seen a Simpsons episode set in the future, we won’t spoil the surprise. But, if the McPlant burger fails to take off and McDonald’s replaces it with a Happy Meal called Soylent Grin, we’d recommend just getting the fries.

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