Soylent Green is landmark screen science-fiction, a riveting entertainment and a cautionary tale that holds a mirror to a tomorrow rife with ecological disaster. Working well again in the futuristic genre following Planet Of The Apes and The Omega Man, action titan Charlton Heston portrays Thorn, a detective prowling the dark streets of a polluted, overpopulated Big Apple gone rotten in 2022. He’s trailing a murderer-and the trail leads to a stunning discovery. Vividly realized, Soylent Green’s world gains its power not just from its social effects but from its heart-a human dimension magnified by the performance of legendary Edward G. Robinson in his moving screen farewell.
Soylent Green 7.75
eyelights: the setting. the mystery.
eyesores: the cheapness of the production.
“Ah, people were always lousy… But there was a world, once.”
‘Soylent Green’ is a 1973 science fiction motion picture starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson. Based on Harry Harrison’s novel ‘Make Room! Make Room!’, it takes us to New York City in the year 2022, in a city strained by massive overpopulation (40 million inhabitants!), declining resources and extreme poverty.
The plot revolves around the murder of a wealthy man, whose death is being investigated by NYCPD detective Thorn (Heston). A ruffian with a good nose for foul play, he soon starts to see that there’s more behind this murder than merely theft. With the help of his “Book”, Saul (Robinson), he finds a number of leads to follow.
But powerful forces are complicit in preventing him from finding the truth.
Police procedural aside, the most compelling aspect of ‘Soylent Green’ is its setting and vision of the future, one that may have seemed somewhat possible in the early ’70s but that is now more likely than ever some forty years later. It’s the chief reason why I was smacked in the face when I first saw this picture.
Overpopulation: the 40 million inhabitant of NYC are living in the same space used for 8 million. Finding a small apartment is nearly impossible. People are sleeping in staircases, huddled in churches. They can’t live in the country because it is highly protected corporate farmland.
High unemployment rate: Of the 40 million people in New York City, 20 million men are without employment. The few who have jobs are overworked to the point of collapse, sometimes only getting one day off a month. Being sick two days means losing your job. Beautiful young women can find work as concubines in wealthy condo apartments; they are considered “furniture” that are part of the units and can be dismissed by the occupants at their whim. Their body and their company are business transactions.
Environmental collapse: NYC is a dusty wasteland, with nighttime temperatures hitting 90°F (approx. 32°C) because of the greenhouse effect. Daytimes are brutal. Some of the only trees to be found in the whole city are in a threadbare tree sanctuary, an isolated space merely the size of a large garage.
Limited resources: Food is scarce, and the average person subsists on various types of soylent (which is a term derived from soy and lentils). Fresh water is so rare that it is rationed, enough for drinking and cooking. Forget about baths, let alone showers. Only the privileged few have paper, pencils, soap, …etc.
Rampant corruption: Given how limited jobs and resources are, it’s quite common for police officers and other civil servants to use their positions to take advantage of people, to openly steal and use them for their own gain. This is considered typical and isn’t frowned upon.
Government-corporate collusion: Not only does the government ration food and water, the food it offers is a corporate product, which sponsors the Governor in various ways. The government protects the corporation’s farmlands from the population, by preventing them from leaving the cities. They are stuck there.
Government control: On top rationing necessities, the government also imposes curfews at night so that it can take care of business, like garbage removal, …etc. They also regularly have riot police on hand at the soylent markets, to quell any discontent. They also influence police investigations.
Assisted suicide: In this future, there are facilities that are put in place to give citizens a chance to end their lives in spa-like conditions, with their choice of music, large-screen videos, and the care of the facility’s staff. It’s not clear if there’s a charge or if it’s government-sponsored, but it’s readily available.
Yeah, the world of ‘Soylent Green’ is a cheery one. But it is also a captivating one, precisely because you can see the seeds of this version of the future being sown daily. Not to be cynical, but much of this is actually quite possible, especially in this day on Monsanto and corporate ownership of what should be public property.
And if we’re actually nearing the environmental tipping point that most scientists believe in (and that only a handful of very outspoken disbelievers try to discredit), then much of the rest is even more likely. As for the assisted suicide, we’re headed towards that too. And without the proper protections in place, it could get ugly.
The world of ‘Soylent Green’ wouldn’t be a pretty place at all. That someone may have envisioned it and put it on canvas for us is jaw-dropping.
The mystery is also compelling, especially since we know from the onset that the victim expected his murder, and didn’t fight it. Something is going on… but what? Even more interesting is how the pieces come together, hinting, but not revealing – and even when the characters find out, they don’t tell us until the end.
Another interesting aspect of ‘Soylent Green’ is the relationship between Thorn and Saul. They are roommates, but they express their love for one another openly. It’s hard to say if it just means that men are more able to express affection for each other in this future, or if this was a subtle suggestion that Thorn was bisexual.
Either way, they have a very close, almost familial relationship, even though Saul works for Thorn, in essence. When Thorn’s boss suggests replacing Saul, who is past is prime, Thorn declines. There’s this terrific moment when Thorn brings home stolen fresh foods and they have a minor feast together; it was touching, intimate.
And yet, Thorn also develops a close relationship with Shirl, the victim’s furniture. At first too busy to take advantage of her, he returns to “further interrogate” her and builds a strong bond with her – limited only by his inability to sustain her. They have to accept that she will remain part of the furniture, a hard pill to swallow.
If there’s anything wrong with the picture, it’s the fact that it looks like it was done on the cheap. It’s not a glaringly low-budget picture like ‘The Omega Man‘ (I mean, it has matte painting, a few nice sets, …etc.), but it cuts corners in some areas, like the riot police uniforms or their “scoops”, which are just tractors.
It also looks really crappy, even on DVD. I’m not sure it’s the source material or just bad mastering, but the picture looks gritty, so filthy at times that you’d almost imagine that the celluloid was dragged through kitty litter. Combined with the grim setting, it made for a particularly dismal viewing experience.
Otherwise, ‘Soylent Green’ is a must-see. Sure, it looks dated, and it could benefit from an update (there have been persistent rumours of a remake), but its subject matter remains topical. It should serve as a warning for humanity, so that we may avoid this reality – one that is altogether too believable, no matter how grotesque it seems.
Date of viewing: January 14, 2015