New York. 2022. Overpopulation and the greenhouse effect have
plunged the world into chaos. NYPD Detective Thorn (Heston)
is assigned to the murder case of a director of the all-powerful
Soylent Corporation, manufacturer of what little food remains
to feed the planet. His investigations lead him to uncover
a horrifying conspiracy. Based on Harry Harrison's novel Make
Room, Make Room...
in the 1960s and 1970s, if you wanted to show that we had
screwed up the world, who did you call? Why, Charlton Heston,
of course. Soylent Green (1973) is the last part of
the actor's unofficial Armageddon trilogy, following Planet
of the Apes (1968) and The Omega Man (1972). To
many sci-fi fans, it is the most interesting, even if it is
not the best movie. Why?
It famously has a deeply shocking ending but, more important
to its longevity, it is also the most prescient of the three
films. Watching it 30 years on, you realise that global warming
is that old a worry and we've still done chuff all about it.
further, the film is replete with ideas about the moral depths
to which humanity can sink, the consequences of unchecked
population growth and the threats that arise when corporations
take power over government. Yes, it's a George Monbiot book
it ain't that great as a movie. It is flatly-paced and the
performances vary. To keep its secret, it uses hackneyed devices:
scenes that start just after the important information has
been given, loudspeakers that break down just as the 'truth'
is spoken. And critically, its very 1970s villain, the-powers-that-be,
is presented in such a way as to leave the hero punching water.
say, Warren Beatty in Alan J. Pakula's brilliant 1974 paranoia
trip The Parallax View, Heston's Thorn may be fighting
something whose power lies in its inaccessibility. But the
audience still needs some key to understanding this menace,
a sense of why and how its thinking has become warped. The
Pakula movie draws much of its impact from elliptical hints
and a sense that the 'bad guy' is always just outside the
frame; Soylent Green tosses in its famous revelation
(not present in Harrison's novel), a diabolus ex machina
Governor and a henchman in chunky sunglasses and a silly hat.
has given the film cult status is a collection of elements
that do not quite carry it to greatness but do make it worth
depiction of tomorrow's morality is often very powerful and
disturbing. There are no 'good' or 'bad' characters, aside
from Edward G. Robinson as Sol, Thorn's elderly assistant
and the one embodiment of a 'decent' past.
cop, by contrast, is as corrupt as hell, stealing from those
he questions and the house of the murder victim. He is also
seen striking some murky deal over the corpse. For once, the
unsympathetic and bumptious aspects of a typical Heston performance
further comparison is made with the minions opposing Thorn.
The young, fresh-faced assassin (Stephen Young) is shown being
hired in the abandoned car he now calls home while his wife
sits in the back seat, suckling their child. He is given an
extraordinary scene with his target (Joseph Cotten), where
the Soylent director acknowledges his death is 'not right
- necessary', while the killer offers an apology from his
bodyguard (Chuck Connors) who ends up hunting Heston is also
given more than a veneer of humanity. He is caring towards
women at a time when they are treated as and literally called
'furniture'. He is then seen killing a priest to the words
"Forgive me father, for I have sinned" - and it doesn't seem
There are also some great scenes. When Sol and Thorn find
some 'real' food - as opposed to the synthesised crap on which
they usually live - Fleischer sets up a wonderful dumb show
sequence of them chomping through lettuce, a beef stew and
towards the climax, the film sets up a euthanasia option given
to this society's old and infirm in a sequence that knots
your stomach with horror and disgust, without being in any
way graphic. It does for Beethoven's Pastoral symphony what
A Clockwork Orange does for 'Singing in the Rain',
creating a powerful disassociation of the music used from
the composer's original intention.
there is the film's look. Its vision of a tomorrow rooted
in the decayed architecture and fittings of the present -
all washed over in a sickly tint - went on to influence movies
such as Blade Runner. It's arguable, though, that Soylent
Green does the best job, in part because of its modest
are no glowering video billboards and flying cars to let the
viewer escape the connection between its envisioned future
and the present. And thus, in another way, does the film's
message get through despite problems elsewhere.
For its DVD release, this mixed-bag of a movie has got a mixed-bag
of extras. The commentary, in particular, is as variable as
the film. Fleischer did a great job on 20,000 Leagues Under
The Sea, but here - accompanied by actress Leigh Taylor-Young
- he often rambles, though there are interesting nuggets about
background details and filmcraft.
there are a couple of historically interesting promo films
- one on the film, and the other on a party for Robinson as
he made his 101st and final movie - plus a trailer and a Heston
sci-fi filmography masquerading as an 'essay'. It's hardly
vital stuff, and you are unlikely to watch the features more
than once. A documentary featuring the filmmakers along with
environmentalists and others who have adopted the movie would
have been more useful.
the film's many fans, however, what will matter is that the
widescreen anamorphic transfer, from a newly-struck print,
does full justice to Fleischer's vision. It reproduces the
off-kilter feel that he wanted. The sound may only be offered
in mono, but is also crisp.
those aficionados, I would recommend the disc. But given the
work needed to appreciate the film, the uninitiated may prefer
to wait for a Region 2 release and rental. Soylent Green
is, after all, an acquired taste.
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