Movies We Like
Soylent Green, completing the Charlton Heston dystopian future trifecta of Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man, may be spiritually closer to Douglas Trumbull's ecological space flick from 1972, Silent Running, and the much more recent gloomy Children of Men, than the flat out entertainment adventures of Chuck’s earlier walk down the roads of things to come. The film is based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! by respected sci-fi writer Harry Harrison, with a screenplay by Stanley R. Greenberg (who was a career TV scribe until he hit the big screen with another Heston flick, the less memorable Skyjacked). With Soylent Green underrated director Richard Fleischer continued to develop one of the most diverse film resumes ever. His bizarre career started in noir (Narrow Margin); included dramas (Compulsion); sci-fi (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Fantastic Voyage); some great little thrillers (The Boston Strangler, 10 Rillington Place and See No Evil); as well as a number of legendary misfires (Doctor Dolittle and the Neil Diamond opus The Jazz Singer). Fleischer manages to sprinkle a little of all of the above into Soylent Green.
If you already know the slight twist ending, Soylent Green can play like a long Twilight Zone episode, but beyond the Rod Serling influence (he came up with that great twist at the end of The Planet of the Apes), this is an interesting take on the future, which was certainly more fresh in 1973. It’s now 2022 in New York and the world is overpopulated (44 million in NY alone) and poverty stricken. Due to the “greenhouse effect” it’s awfully hot, the world is polluted, the oceans are dead, and food is scarce. The Soylent Corporation produces food wafers to feed the masses: soylent red, yellow, and the new and improved delicious green. But when one of the company's owners, William Simonson (Joseph Cotton), is murdered NYPD detective Robert Thorn (Heston) investigates. Thorn is lucky enough to have his own teensy tenement apartment he shares with his buddy Sol (Edward G Robinson in his last film role), one of the few old timers who remember how the world once was - he even once tasted a strawberry! Most of the masses live on the street (or his building’s stairs), but Thorn and Sol live not much better. Like a classic noir character, when Thorn investigates the wealthy man’s death he helps himself to his stuff (food, soap, booze, even the dead man’s hooker companion).
Like Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, where the rich live above in comfort and the rest of society lives below in extreme destitution, Simonson’s life above was opulent. He was protected by a bodyguard played by Chuck Conners (nice to see The Rifleman show up here, though rumor had it that his Southern accent was dubbed over by another actor), and loved by a full time escort (or as they call them “furniture") played by the beautiful Leigh Taylor-Young. Everyone is trying to sell Thorn that this was just a random break-in that led to a murder, but he sees it was an assassination with potential political or corporate secrets at stake. Thorn is pushed by his lieutenant (Brock Peters) to back off and, in the noir tradition, as he digs deeper and learns more, his own life becomes at risk. Thorn, though not greedy as many of these anti-heros can be, still has had his eyes closed to the massive suffering. With rioting breaking out around him and the Government sending in scoops (trucks with big shovels on them) to crush and kill the citizens, nothing for Thorn is as it once was. Although Sol figures it out first (leading him to choose assisted suicide aided by Dick Van Patten), Thorn also finally learns the horrifying secret of Soylent Green’s yummy taste. He will never be able to go back to the life he once knew.
Heston had won an Oscar many years earlier for Ben Hur and had already reached camp icon status for his shouting work as Moses in The Ten Commandments. He also had a classic and a few near-classics on his resume (Touch of Evil, Greatest Show on Earth, Major Dundee), but it was this period as a sci-fi and action star that opened him up to a new generation. Soylent Green isn’t as good a film as the brilliant Planet of the Apes and the wildly enjoyable The Omega Man, and Robert Thorn is a few notches less Christ-like than the other two film’s heroic characters. He’s a little less he-man and a little more of a working stiff, even having a very moving crying scene (as Sol dies). And of course his final lines have become cinema history (as were his final Apes lines). Soylent Green was his last sci-fi lead. He would spend the rest of the decade with some success in his all-star disaster-film period (Earthquake, Airport 1975, The Two-Minute Warning, Midway) and fill in the gaps with a bunch of forgotten clunkers (does anyone remember The Awakening where he had to save mankind from the evil spirit of an Egyptian God who conveniently enough had possessed his daughter?). By the '80s he was mostly working on TV and then became a loudmouth gun nut which, unfortunately, he may be best known for now.
The 1970s were a golden age for film, including sci-fi. Released a few years after the world’s first Earth Day celebration and as the new interest in environmentalism was coming into vogue, Soylent Green does not wear its social views as loudly on its sleeve as Silent Running. It’s more interested in being a detective action film first. Like Rollerball it’s exciting to see a future that looks so much like the '70s, though this one is awfully beige and khaki. Obviously the creative team behind Soylent Green got much of the future technology wrong. While black and white TV screens are used there is no sign of the Information Age we have lived through since the '70s; a character does play an actual early video game called "Computer Space," but otherwise it misses the boat on things to come in electronics. But what does appear to be on track, and frankly makes Soylent Green scientifically ahead of its time, are the mentions of the “greenhouse effect” and the paranoia behind corporate lead processed food (Soylent Monsanto), a direction the world does appear to be moving towards at an alarming rate. Hopefully Soylent Green didn’t get the secret-sauce special ingredient right and that factor will always be a way-out fantastical sci-fi nightmare.