Soylent Green (1973)
"It's the year 2022... People are still the same. They'll do anything to get what they need. And they need SOYLENT GREEN."
In the year 2022, Detective Robert Thorn is sent to investigate the murder of William Simonsen, a wealthy man who has ties to the Soylent Corporation, the world’s leading manufacturer of synthetic food. Soylent have become one of the most powerful companies in the world, making small, edible wafers to feed the millions of starving people across the country. But Thorn’s investigation takes him further and further towards the horrible truth behind Soylent Green, the company’s latest protein-rich product.
Less outright sci-fi and more police procedural drama, Soylent Green is a bit of a weird entry into the 70s obsession with dystopian futures. Big on ideas and concept but failing to translate that across into a fully engaging story, Richard Fleischer’s grim vision of 2022 (a little over a year away at the time of writing this review!) features a planet which has been ravaged by climate change, food shortages and overpopulation. Throw in some Charlton Heston grandstanding and you’ve got one of the 70s most famous, if flawed, sci-fi films.
Loosely adapted from Harry Harrison's award-winning novel Make Room! Make Room!, Soylent Green is such a frustrating and unfocused mix of ideas that you just wish Fleischer had stuck with something and rolled with it. The pace is deliberate, meaning that not a lot happens for a large stretch of time, but it allows you to explore this futuristic world. A world plagued by pollution, courtesy of some ropey green hue added to the outdoor scenes, there’s something definitely 70s about the ‘future’ décor, hairstyles and furniture which makes it look badly dated nowadays. But the lack of big budget special effects and lavish sets really help to keep the film grounded and, more importantly, believable. This isn’t some far flung future with flying cars, transporters and laser beams but something a contemporary audience could associate with, whilst still being unfamiliar at the same time. Little attempt was made to hide the big twist at the end of the film – it was all but revealed in the theatrical trailer and has since become as part of popular culture as Heston’s immortal line at the end of The Planet of the Apes – and yet this doesn’t really harm the rest of the story, in fact it may even strengthen it as humanity blissfully goes about consuming Soylent Green without any compulsion to find out just what it was made from. I like the fact that there’s plenty of questions raised and not enough answers, particularly the ending dilemma – if everyone knew what Soylent Green was made of, would they still consume it? There’s nothing else to eat so where do their morals draw the line?
Though the detective story bogs down the pacing of the film and seemingly goes nowhere fast, it’s all of the incidental details in the background that make Soylent Green such a fascinating watch. From the packed streets of New York, where whole families are literally sleeping in cars, to the riot control bin wagons used to quell protests by scooping people up (refuse collectors for anyone from outside the UK) and the glamorous indulgences of the rich (which we would take for granted now such as a slab of beef), there’s something of a reluctant acceptance from all of the characters that this is the way of life now. Seeing Heston’s character enjoy a hot shower for the first time or eat real food is both touching and unnerving at the same time – these are things which we take for granted today and don’t really think twice about not being able to do them.
Following closely on from fellow apocalyptic sci-fi films The Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man, Charlton Heston provides another barrel-chested, clenched-jaw performance which, love him or hate him, at least provides the film with some gravitas and star power. His character is, however, rather unlikeable, deeply corrupt and misogynist and takes no shame in using his police status to benefit himself, raiding the kitchen of the deceased Simonsen and taking full advantage of his ‘furniture’ (a euphemism to describe the buxom females given to wealthy residents of the apartment Simonsen lived in). Leigh Taylor-Young is given the thankless role of literally being the eye candy whore but she looks amazing and her quick connection with Heston’s character does allow for some emotional character development, even if it’s of no consequence to the film’s narrative.
The great Edward G. Robinson made his final appearance here, dying literally days after filming completed. Robinson’s character, Sol, gives the film some much needed heart and soul and is present in the film’s most moving sequence, Sol’s visit to an assisted suicide clinic, where the weary man is shown a visual and musical montage of what Earth used to be like, before he passes on. It’s an unforgettable sequence, poignant and beautiful both in the cinematic sense but made even more surreal by the knowledge of Robinson’s death shortly after. Robinson and Heston also share a fantastic scene early on where they both eat real food, and the sight of them enjoying such a pathetic meal together is heart-warming and rather scary at the same time. Neither man says a word and the entire scene is acted out with facial expressions. Thorn, having been raised solely on Soylent Green and never eaten real food, watches and copies Sol's every move as they tuck into a 'feast' of a few salad leaves, a measly spoonful of stew and a waxy apple. It just makes you appreciate some of the finer things in life whilst you can.
Soylent Green is grim but holds back too much from embracing its dystopian roots as much as it could have done. Environmental disasters, food shortages, population explosions and extreme free market capitalism are still highly relevant today but outside of some lip service, there’s no delving deeper into any of the issues. Instead, the film constantly teeters from being ultra-camp to being ultra-serious, and committing the cardinal filmmaking sin of being too dull and dreary, never really generating enough suspense or tension to make the film’s shocking climax even more effective.
Director(s): Richard Fleischer
Writer(s): Stanley R. Greenberg (screenplay), Harry Harrison (novel "Make Room! Make Room!")
Actor(s): Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors, Joseph Cotten, Brock Peters
Duration: 88 mins