Soylent Green (1973)

I'd watch anything with Charlton Heston in it. The man's politics aside, Heston brings a gravitas and a genuine, attainable machismo to any role he essays, and some pretty decent acting chops as well. In addition, he's been in so many captivating films! We're talking the first two Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, Earthquake, Ben Hur, El Cid, Airport 1975 and countless others. The Heston presence is in full form in Soylent Green, one of my favorite films and long overdue for a review in these here pages. We've got a dystopean thriller from the golden age of cult cinema on our hands tonight, one which viewing could make you feel a little uncomfortable given the recent developments with our poor old planet's climate. Most people know the ending to this film, and to properly explore it I'm going to reveal it later - if you don't want to know the conclusion of this movie, turn away now.

It's 2022 in America. After years of unchecked population growth around the world, the planet and it's ecology has fallen to pieces. Corporations rule all, and New York alone houses about forty-four million people. A dense yellow pollution blankets the city in a year-round heatwave. Every corridor and space is crammed with poverty-stricken people, who live on a generic food produced by the Soylent company, which produces highly processed wafers and buns known as Soylent Yellow, Red and now a new version announced as made from plankton, 'Soylent Green'. Real food such as vegetables and meat are virtually unknown, the last remnants eaten only by the ultra-rich. Running water is an unknown and water is strictly rationed. Riots over conditions are frequent and the massed crowds are often thrown into dump trucks with bulldozer blades called 'Scoops", and carted off to who knows where.

In this milieu of sweaty misery, we find Detective Robert Thorn (Heston) and his room-mate research assistant Sol (Edward G. Robinson in his last role). They live in a dingy apartment where Sol has to ride a bike to keep the battery that provides the electricity going. Sol can read, one of the few who still can in a world where there's no trees to make paper for books. He's also old enough to remember a better world before it all went wrong, and constantly reminds Thorn of this.

Thorn is an interesting, mixed character. As played by Heston in swaggeringly fine form, Thorn is quite corrupt and will unapologetically steal luxury items from a crime scene to bring home for himself and Sol. He finds himself investigating the murder of a rich man, William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotton). At first it seems like a burglary gone wrong, but as the investigation lengthens it becomes clear it was a deliberate murder. Simonson's bodyguard Tab Fielding (a slimy Chuck Connors) seems to be hiding something, and Simonson's live-in lover who comes with the apartment, Shirl (gorgeous-looking Leigh Taylor-Young), knows nothing. These 'apartment women' are known as 'furniture' and simply are rented out to the next rich tenant. Thorn washes his face with the running water he's barely experienced, has sex with Shirl, and raids the apartment of some luxury food, alcohol and soap.

When he presents this stolen bounty to Sol, the older man cries when he sees the items, particularly a side of beef, which is now worth a small fortune. He sadly remembers the old world when things were good, but they enjoy their 'repast' later all the same. Thorn's investigation, with Sol's research, is turning up some odd details. Realizing he's being followed, he finds out Simonson was one of the head honchoes of Soylent, and then finds a book Simonson left behind about Oceanography and the history of the Soylent company. Thorn begins to be pressured to drop the case, but he won't relent. When Thorn is then put on riot detail by his harried boss Hatcher (Brock Peters), the same man who killed Simonson tries to kill Thorn, but during a huge food-riot Thorn is only grazed in the leg by the bullet, and the assassin is killed by the falling blade of a Scoop.

Thorn returns to Simonson's apartment and has sex with Shirl again. She wants to leave and live with him, and they stay in, turn up the air conditioning - "like it was winter again" - have showers and generally indulge themselves! Thorn breaks up a fight between the caretaker and a group of 'furniture' girls, showing a slightly less cynical and more protective side. He has a brawl with Tab Fielding who he accuses of following him. In the meantime, Sol has done his work too well. Conferring with other older knowledge gurus, though they can scarcely believe the discovery, as they all arrive at the same gruesome, heart-sinking truth about their world. It's too much for Sol and he leaves a note for Thorn - "I'm going home."

Thorn, arriving back at their apartment and reading the note, knows exactly what Sol's getting at. He rushes to the local euthanasia centre where you can watch whatever you want, listen to whatever music you like for twenty minutes before you die. Thorn bursts in and demands to speak to Sol. It's too late though - Sol has been given the death-drug and only has a few minutes to live. Both Thorn and Sol see the world as it was, beautiful, with plants, water and animals in abundance. Classical music plays over the images. As Thorn cries at his dying friend and the natural beauty he witnesses but has never experienced in his life, Sol tells him to go to the 'Exchange" after he dies and find the truth about Soylent, then the old man passes on.

Thorn sneaks onto a corpse-carrying truck and takes a ride to the Exchange, a factory where the masses of corpses are treated and disposed of. To his utter horror, where bodies are being processed, Soylent Green comes out at the end of the line! He fights some factory workers and escapes with the horrible truth. In an alleyway, he calls Shirl on the phone and tells her to stay in her apartment arrangement and "just live". More goons, including Fielding, trail him and he calls Hatcher for help. They shoot him as he flees into a church, but Thorn kills Fielding first and Hatcher rescues his old friend. As they cart him off for medical help, Thorn screams they they have to stop Soylent - that the oceans and plankton are all in fact dead and that in reality, "Soylent Green is people!"

Given global warming's increasing presence in our lives, I must admit this film gives me a bit of a queasy feeling after a view. The thought of the world being a lifeless, overheated, overpopulated mess where ruling corporations decide it's easier to eat our own dead than coax any food out of the ruined ecology is pretty frightening stuff. Perhaps it's a bit dated, the apartment scenes being seventies groovy in their decor, with Shirl playing an arcade game at the level of good old 'Pong". It's the acting and conviction of it's stars and not special effects that makes Soylent Green a classic. I have read that Heston knew that Robinson was dying of terminal cancer at the time - his emoting in Sol's death-scene leads me to believe that. Thorn's brash, bullying side is counterbalanced well by a sort of nobility that grows subtlely due to Heston's performance. Robinson's Sol lends mischief, intelligence and wisdom to his old professor role. Director Richard Fleischer's visuals and overall look are simple, and there are perhaps too many empty back alleys for such a crowded world - every set of stairs seems to have people sleeping in it, in contrast - but this is a small quibble. Let's hope Soylent Green is not too prophetic in at least one of it's factors, that of the world heating up into a stinking hot, polluted wreck of a planet. Hopefully some birth control would work on the population before we all get squashed in like Thorn and Sol!

Even if you don't like Heston's presence, I'd still recommend this one as a sci-fi classic from the seventies. No real special effects to speak of, just a lot of intelligence and thoughtful film-making, and we thus have an effective thriller with one of the most downbeat endings of all time. At least Thorn and others know the ghastly truth at the film's conclusion, though what they can then do with it in that world is anyone's guess.

© Boris Lugosi, 2007.

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Review written: 01/09/2007 22:33:33