Soylent Green (1973)
Soylent Green (1973)

Genre: Crime Drama, Mystery, and Sci-Fi Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 37 min.

Release Date: May 9th, 1973 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Richard Fleischer Actors: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors, Joseph Cotten, Brock Peters, Paula Kelly, Stephen Young, Mike Henry, Roy Jensen

 


 

A

montage of invention and commerce reveals the eventual waste, pollution, and overcrowding of modernization and technological advancements. Where society benefits, nature and the environment tend to suffer. The year is 2022 in New York City, where the population has spiked to a stifling 40 million. Amid the staggering unemployment rates, crime, riots, global warming, and poverty, at least the extreme food shortages are temporarily tempered by various types of Soylent Company cubes, which are created and distributed to the masses. They’re high-energy vegetable concentrates, providing basic nutrition in a world where sustenance is hard to come by. The release of the new Soylent Green, a high-energy plankton-based cube is currently so popular that it creates a scarcity and a huge demand, forcing the authorities to only hand out the coveted item on Tuesdays.

In an overrun, shabby apartment complex, Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) and his elderly pal Sol (Edward G. Robinson) reside, passing the time by conversing about the city’s abundance of problems. When Thorn goes on the night shift for the 14th precinct, he begins an investigation of wealthy lawyer and politician William Simonson (Joseph Cotten), who was bludgeoned to death by what appears to be an amateur burglar, while his bodyguard, Tab Fielding (Chuck Connors), was away shopping with building escort Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young) – a woman employed as “furniture” or companionship for the tenant. There’s not much evidence, other than the fact that Simonson was ludicrously wealthy – and he didn’t put up a fight. “Most people like to live.” “If you say so.”

In this virtually post-apocalyptic, pessimistic vision of the future, life is cheap, abuse is prevalent, most people have given up hope, corruption runs rampant, and the police aren’t terribly concerned with solving crimes (Thorn is more focused on robbing the crime scene of little valuables, like booze, paper, pencils, soap, a few apples, a beef steak – which is enough to bring Sol to tears – and a pillowcase). The outlook is bleak and unfriendly; enthusiasm and smiles are things of the past, while resources are rapidly vanishing. Humankind is bedraggled, dirty, and primitive – save for the small group of elites at the very top who still have power and money.

“People were always rotten.” After establishing the environment, overloaded with the yellow haze of a dying planet, homeless humans inhabiting nearly every square inch of the area (so much so that getting from one spot to another oftentimes requires stepping on and over sleeping bodies), and a gross deficiency in essential supplies, the film touches upon clues surrounding Simonson’s demise. Brilliantly, as Thorn pokes around the city, trailing Fielding, harassing witnesses, and visiting Shirl to partake in uncommon niceties, the titular foodstuff is almost forgotten. It may be at the heart of the picture, but it merely lurks in the background; its significance is intended not to overshadow the murder-mystery at the forefront (in fact, it takes nearly an hour before it even makes a physical appearance). “I’m not gonna falsify that report!”

Long before “Blade Runner,” this potent ’70s sci-fi drama, grounded in such a recognizable reality that the science-fiction elements are almost indiscernible, paved the way for austere designs of an unforgiving deterioration of society. Unlike the worlds of “Mad Max” or “Escape from New York” or “Waterworld,” which combine dwindling reserves in an action-packed, exaggerated, lawless land, “Soylent Green” instead extrapolates authentic socioeconomic woes into believable outcomes, exacerbated by despair and atheistic tendencies. The wealth divide isn’t as over-the-top as it is merely forthright.

As it moves towards its astonishing conclusion – also devoid of the bluster that is typical in these kinds of projects – to allow for thought-provoking examinations of justice (and the futility of its pursuit) and mortality, maintaining its unhurried pacing, it becomes quite profound. It’s one of the boldest yet most funereal of cautionary tales (the kind like “1984” that speak shocking truths while often having its accuracies ignored, dismissed as creativity rather than prophecy), culminating in a revelation so exceptional that it eclipses the intricate observations that preceded it. It’s also amusing to note that Charlton Heston has starred in two of the greatest sci-fi epics of the ’60s and ’70s, each featuring unforgettable, iconic, transcendent twist endings (the other being “Planet of the Apes”).

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10