DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Soylent Green

Friday, 18 March 2011

Soylent Green

Soylent Green (1973) dir. Richard Fleischer
Starring: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors, Joseph Cotton, Brock Peters


By Alan Bacchus

This uniformly awful sci-fi semi-classic based on the 1966 science fiction novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison still clings to pop cultural significance because of its phenomenal twist at the end. Spoiler alert: I will try hard not to reveal the twist, but I guarantee I won’t drop the p-bomb.

Yes, that 'twist' at the end is fantastic. I still remember seeing the film as a kid, and indeed the significance of that reveal (a more appropriate word to use) on the overall impact of the movie was enough for it to stick in my mind. What didn’t stay in my mind was the rest of the film, which is laughably bad. Charlton Heston is at his worst, and director Richard Fleischer destroying potentially lethal source material with bone-headed directorial decisions.

Ok, the story – it’s NYC in a typically 1970s dystopian future. The population has overrun to 40 million people in that city. As a result, food has become scarce, which results in mass shortages of even basic sustenance. Government via third party corporations have stepped in to supply people with mass-produced soy-based food products. When a wealthy businessman is murdered, Richard Thorn (Heston) is called in to investigate. Clues and evidence lead him to the Soylent Corporation, where he discovers a particularly shocking secret ingredient in Soylent Green, the newest food product on the market.

Heston is simply laughable as the disreputable cop Thorn. He saunters from scene to scene like a lazy John Wayne impersonator and sports the queerest cap ever worn by a straight man in film. His dialogue is the stuff drinking games are made of – unintentionally hilarious – and definitive of this part of Heston’s career, which slowly eroded his former Hollywood star-value.

But there are two things to savour from Soylent Green. The first is Edward G. Robinson playing Sol, Thorn’s father figure. The movie is billed as Robinson’s 101st film, and indeed some 40+ years into his career he’s still magnetic. Unlike Heston, Robinson embodies the humanism in Harry Harrison’s original writing and trumps Fleischer’s blockhead direction.

Secondly, on the page, Soylent Green could have been a memorable and haunting sci-fi film. The themes of environmental destruction, the overuse of the planet’s resources and extreme free market capitalism feel wholly relevant today. The final scene featuring Sol, who decides to commit suicide after he learns of Soylent’s cover-up and who can’t bear living in a world that has devolved to the most extreme form of social dysfunction (cannibalism), offers a glimpse of how resonant this film could have been. In this moment, in exchange for his death and his body, he is treated to a spa-like, pampered assisted-suicide set to calming classical music and images of Earth’s once plentiful natural resources.

This is a profound existential moment for Sol, Thorn and the audience, which makes for the best scene in the movie. However, it also shows what Fleischer righteously bungled up.

Of course there’s also the famous final line of the film read by Heston, repeated several times actually with the same grandeur as he exclaimed, “Damn you all to hell!” in Planet of the Apes. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities between these two films end.

Soylent Green is available from Warner Home Entertainment.

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