Soylent Green (Region 1 Edition)

Starring: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors and Joseph Cotten.
Warner Bros
RRP: $19.99 (Region 1)
Certificate: PG (US)/12 (UK)
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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...

Back 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.

Going 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 as fiction.

Yet 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.

Like, 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.

What has given the film cult status is a collection of elements that do not quite carry it to greatness but do make it worth seeing.

Its 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.

Thorn's 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 are appropriate.

A 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 clients.

The 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 entirely ironic.

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 apples.

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.

Finally, 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 budget.

There 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.

Then, 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.

To 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.

To 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.

Paul Dempsey

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