by Mel Valentin
Soylent Green is… well, telling you that would be spoiling one a classic twist ending to a less-than-classic, if no less prescient, dystopian tale, "Soylent Green." Directed by Richard Fleischer ("The Boston Strangler," "Fantastic Voyage," "Crack in the Mirror," "Compulsion," "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,' "The Narrow Margin") and loosely based on the novel, "Make Room! Make Room!," by science-fiction author, Harry Harrison, "Soylent Green" became a cult classic, largely due to Charlton Heston’s overemphatic performance and, of course, the aforementioned ending that’s perfectly that’s become fodder for countless parodies and spoofs. Back in 1973, though, "Soylent Green" wasn’t the punch line to a joke, but rather, a thought provoking, terrifying vision of a potential future.Jean Paul Sartre’s phrase, “Hell is other people,” sums up Soylent Green’s main theme almost perfectly. In 2022, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and overpopulation, have left everyone except the wealthiest, worse off. With a population of 40,000,000 (half unemployed), living in New York has become a Hobbesian struggle of all against all. Those who have jobs live in rundown apartments in rundown buildings. The wealthiest live in secure, air-conditioned high-rise buildings with access to high-priced black market goods, including food and other luxury items. Women are literally treated as “furniture,” concubines who can be purchased and traded at will by wealthy men. We never learn what happens to the discarded women, but more likely than not, they’re released into the general population, destitute unless their wealthy benefactors decide to fund their “retirement.”
"A sc-fi/camp classic that more than fully deserves its status."
Even the wealthy, however, rely on the Soylent Corporation for artificially created food. The Soylent Corporation provides close to half of the world’s population with daily rations of Soylent Yellow, Soylent Orange, and, the most popular variety, Soylent Green, apparently made from plankton. But in an overpopulated world with scarce resources, public policy has shifted to include government-sponsored euthanasia centers. These centers have been set up for the elderly, infirm, or anyone else who wants to die. Moments before they die quietly by lethal injection, they’re treated to soothing classical music and visual recreations of a long-lost world.
New York City detective Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) gets called in to investigate the apparent robbery and murder of a high-ranking member of the Soylent Corporation, William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotten). After arriving at the Simonson’s high-rise apartment, Thorn questions Simonson’s much younger lover, Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), and Simonson’s bodyguard, Fielding (Chuck Connors). Although Shirl and Fielding were away when Simonson was murdered, Thorn almost immediately begins to suspect that Shirl, Fielding, or someone unknown set up Simonson. Thorn also helps himself to portable merchandise during his interrogation of Shirl, Fielding, and the apartment manager, Charles (Leonard Stone).
At home, Thorn consults his roommate/co-worker, Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), for advice. The far older Roth is a “book,” a former professor who now works as a repository of knowledge and researcher for the less-literate Thorn. Roth also cooks for Thorn and, on occasion, tries to keep him honest in an amoral world. Roth also reminds Thorn of life before the natural and man-made disasters left humanity precariously out of balance with the world. Tenacious, stubborn, and finding a sense of morality reawakened by the Simonson case, Thorn continues the investigation, regardless of where it’ll lead and who it’ll implicate. But the Soylent Corporation has strong ties to the current governor, Santini (Whit Bissell), who, in turn, controls Thorn’s superior officer, Lt. Hatcher, Chief of Detectives (Brock Peters).
Equal parts science fiction dystopia and mystery/thriller with a corporate/government conspiracy at its center, Soylent Green is also, at least, at the margins, horror. While it has few shocks or blood, those that it has would place Soylent Green firmly in the suspense category. Soylent Green takes contemporary fears, fears more relevant and urgent now than thirty-five years ago, about environmental degradation and overpopulation, and takes us to a future where those fears are real. The consequences, e.g., severely limited space, polluted air and water, joblessness, rampant crime, government corruption, corporate greed, and on and on, all lead toward pessimism about the future, our future.
Where Soylent Green really dips into horror, into a horrific future, is in the final revelation that explains why Simonson was murdered and why the Soylent Corporation wanted Simonson silenced. Of course, to give that away here for the few readers who haven’t seen Soylent Green or heard the punchline, would be to spoil what, back in 1973, must have shocked and disturbed audiences faced with the seemingly inevitable answer to overpopulation and rapidly shrinking resources. Despite hints and references to offscreen conversations, the revelation is saved for last, adding, ultimately, to the deep shock the central character, and by extension, we feel, when we learn the truth.
Besides the setting and twist ending, Soylent Green also marked acting veteran Edward G. Robinson’s last performance in a career spanning 101 films. During the film’s production, Robinson struggled with terminal cancer (something only Heston and a few others knew about). He died nine days after production wrapped on Soylent Green. Knowing this much adds poignancy to Robinson’s understated performance as Roth, a cantankerous, if no less compassionate, ex-professor who mourns for the people he’s left behind and a world he’ll never see again. As it was, it probably wasn’t a stretch for Robinson, who was probably experiencing similar feelings and thoughts about the end of his own life.Of course, no discussion of "Soylent Green" can avoid mentioning the one and only Charlton Heston, the former head of the NRA (and long ago activist for liberal causes during the 1960s), here completing the dystopian trilogy that began in 1968 with "Planet of the Apes" and continued with "The Omega Man" three years later. Of the three, only "Planet of the Apes" can be considered “classic.” "The Omega Man" has its fans, but any admiration they have for "The Omega Man" is strictly for its camp value. "Soylent Green" is probably a mix of both, classic science fiction elements, handled competently by director Richard Fleischer, and, of course, Heston’s performance style, stiff one moment, overemphatic the next, up to and including Thorn’s final words, “Soylent Green is…” What’s not to recommend then?
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originally posted: 10/07/07 23:33:30