Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, USA 1973) is one of those rare films that became so much a part of popular culture that the film itself disappeared under its own mythology, like The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, USA 1939). People who not only have never watched the film but never would do so can quote, “Soylent green is people!” So, the question is, is there anything to the film underneath that mythos?
Unfortunately, the answer is that there really isn’t. The film is promoting a conservationist worldview, presenting a future where overpopulation and global warming have removed essentially all semblance of nature. Foods like beef and even lettuce are so rare as to be obtainable only by the very rich, replaced by plastic-looking, tasteless, mass-produced foodstuffs. Usable farmland has become so rare that farms are guarded “like fortresses.” There are so many people crowded into the cities that the film’s hero, Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston), literally walks on top of sleeping homeless people on his way into and out of his home. Faced with this problem, cannibalism eventually became the only remaining answer to feed the populace, leading to the climactic discovery that the latest superfood, Soylent Green, is made of the dead bodies of retired old people. The point is about as obvious as possible, which is often the case with futuristic science fiction.
It’s a frightening vision of the future, especially as presented in the frankly brilliant opening montage by Chuck Braverman of still photography taking us from the “good old days” through a couple hundred years of human “history” perfectly, emphasizing the theme of advancing technology leading to pollution and overpopulation. However, the film’s vision is also one so over the top as to be unbelievable to the point of satire. If, say, Glenn Beck or some similar global warming denialist were to make a film to make fun of the future that they see environmentalists predicting, this is what it would look like. Twenty-nine years later, there are also some odd issues with the vision that are rather funny, as with most futuristic films years later. The film is set sometime after 2022 (the novel was actually set in 1999), which is announced as when Soylent Green, which is being described as “new,” was invented. Obviously, the dooms it foresees have not come to pass and do not appear too close to coming to pass even as we near its date. The funniest problem is one from the novel that I came across that’s not in the film: this dangerously overpopulated United States has a population of 344 million. The population is just shy of 315 million now in the real world.
However, the problem is that the entire film is relying on the shock value of the discovery that Soylent Green is made of people, which of course everyone knows going in now. Most of the plot is a whodunit mystery as Thorn investigates the death of a wealthy, powerful man whose death appears to others to be an accident but he suspects (rightly) was a murder. Even this mystery is uninteresting, as the film is so busy setting up its subplots that it doesn’t bother to add any interesting intrigue or create any connection with the investigation or the related characters. Those subplots are also generally uninteresting. In a development that has nothing to do with the rest of the film’s vision and seems quite bizarre, women are now employed as “furniture,” which is to say live-in prostitutes who belong to the apartments where they live, offering their services to any man who enters. One of the major subplots is a romance developing between Thorn and one of these prostitutes, and the only point of this subplot is to tell us about this development. Another subplot is explaining a close personal relationship between Thorn and his live-in research assistant, Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson). The only purpose of this subplot is to give us a way to see how Soylent Green is made at the end, and it spends far too much time for how small of a plot device it really is.. Altogether, we get an awful lot of time spent on things that add little to the experience.
Visually, there really isn’t anything notable about the film. To its credit, it doesn’t overuse special effects to augment its vision of the future, which keeps it from looking as hokey as it could. However, Fleischer and cinematographer Richard H. Kline don’t do anything particularly interesting in use of color, editing, lighting, etc. It’s not terrible in this manner, but it’s also not interesting.
The film does actually give a couple of actors the chance to do something: Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson. Mostly through their relationship with each other, they get the opportunity to show emotions of deep love, appreciation, and sadness. However, unsurprisingly, only Robinson proves up to the task. There are some bizarre moments where his performance breaks the rhythm of scenes, probably owing to his well-known near-deafness that led to constant new takes as he learned the timing of his co-stars by rote, since he could not actually hear them speaking, but otherwise he is his usual brilliant self. Sol Roth is an ill-defined character, but it’s impossible not to like him because of Robinson’s performance, which also encapsulates just how much the world has lost and how strongly the two men feel for one another, even though his counterpart is a brick wall. Heston, for his part, does attempt to show some emotions, even tearing up in one scene, but his attempts are laughable.
Fred Myrow’s score deserves a note, because it’s quite an excellent score that heightens tension again and again where the film otherwise doesn’t quite deliver. It doesn’t draw attention to itself often, but it works excellently.
All told, it’s not a very good film. It’s generally competent, but not interesting. It was probably worth a watch once upon a time, before its ending became common knowledge, but it’s not really worth the trouble anymore.