This week I watched a couple of dystopian films from the 1970s, both having to do with the troublesome matter of disposing of people. In Soylent Green, it's the year 2022 and the population has quintupled, leading to ecological catastrophe and massive poverty; in Logan's Run, it's the year 2274 and the population is confined to a domed city following some sort of apocalypse, and in order to keep the population under control everyone who reaches birthday #30 is immediately killed.

Neither of these films is considered top-rate cinema; rather, these are "cult classics," meaning movies that people watch on cable to laugh at the 1970s haircuts that are apparently hugely popular in the future (all part of the dystopia, I guess). They're also the sort of films beloved by cultural-studies types, in that they wear their anxieties on the sleeves of their jumpsuits. They let us measure what a society was most worried about at a given point in history: demographic pressures? corporate power? totalitarianism? science run amok? armageddon? This is why in college I studied pop culture instead of history: history furnishes us with information about, for instance, the superpowers' stockpiles during the Cold War, the dates and locations of the flashpoints in their conflict... but it's popular narrative that gets into people's heads, hammers home the extent to which people between 1945 and 1990 expected that the world would shortly end with mushroom clouds on every horizon. The same goes for the energy crisis, intergenerational conflict, you name it.

That said, I'm not going to launch into an essay on what Soylent Green tells us about Monsanto, or about Logan's Run and trends in life expectancy. Instead, just one observation. Soylent Green lingers over the characters' enjoyment of things we take for granted but which in Malthus-ravaged 2022 are once-in-a-lifetime luxuries: a leaf of lettuce; hot running water; a view of a field of flowers. Logan's Run focuses on the terror of thinking you have all the time in the world to enjoy life and then suddenly realizing your time is nearly up. What I find interesting here is that these are not anxieties like those over nuclear war or asteroid impacts — they're not specific to a particular point in history. They're fundamental to the human situation. For while humankind as a whole may not have its lettuce and fields of flowers taken away anytime soon, every single one of us will: we are, after all, going to die someday. Same thing with Logan's Run. 30 may not mark the date of certain death for us, but 125 does, 100 might as well, and 70 makes it more likely than not. Does it really make that much difference when exactly the guillotine blade comes down? The day I watched Logan's Run my best friend from college turned 30; I turn 30 in about five months. This is astounding to me. Hell, that I've already made it into my twenties is still astounding to me, let alone the fact that I'm nearly out of them. Thirty, seventy, a hundred years — I'll wager they all feel like an eyeblink.

So while these two films undoubtedly have lots to tell us about 1970s America, I think they're more grounded in one of the fundamental issues of life in general, perhaps the issue, the main source of dukkha in the world: that loss is hard to bear, and in the end, each of us loses everything. The way these films approach this issue is somewhat goofy, but I'll give them points for effort — it's not just a matter of "come see our explosions" like the box-office smashes from the years that followed.

Anyway, here's hoping that in nineteen years I can have a Spacewar cabinet of my very own.

Return to the Calendar page!