According to Soylent Green (1973), the future has already come and gone—the film is set in the year 2022, and it is already far too late to save the planet.
Soylent Green tackles the issue of climate change long before the issue had become a universal concern—the very first climate summit in Stockholm occurred in 1972, the year this movie was filmed.
Its famous opening montage is a frantic kaleidoscope of images depicting the ravaging effects of rampant industrialization, punctuated by an ever-quickening musical cacophony, quickly reaching its peak and then decelerating in inevitable decline.
Though unremittingly bleak, the story is well-told and excellently played by a cast of skilled actors, and its blatant warnings about society resonate more than ever today.
|Charlton Heston as Thorn|
This future is a nightmarish world of abject poverty. Unemployment and homelessness are universal. Only the 1% elite have any sort of comfort or normalcy—and even that is breaking down. Books are no longer being printed. Technology is in disrepair and unable to be replaced due to the collapse of all manufacturing. The police are totally corrupt, on the take—they have to be in order to survive.
A green, hazy pea soup smog permeates everything in the city of New York (population 40 million). Even the mod, shiny futuristic apartments of the super-wealthy aren’t all that extravagant and impressive since society itself is breaking down and all manufacturing has come to a halt. They’re merely middle-class dwellings.
It’s a world where hundreds of homeless huddle in stairwells to sleep every night and even a gainfully employed police detective must generate his own electricity by pedaling a bike. Even ice is a rarity, and air conditioning and running hot water are luxuries only for the super-rich. (Most of the characters wear a thin sheen of perspiration and sweat on their brows throughout the movie, just one of the many subtle details that make the story seem all too real.)
|Edward G. Robinson as Sol Roth|
Soylent Green was the great Edward G. Robinson’s final film; dying of cancer and stone deaf, he had been working only intermittently in recent years but decided to come out of retirement because the was interested in the film’s premise: “It’s about something,” he said.
‘Eddie G,’ as he was affectionately known, was one of the finest character actors ever to grace the silver screen. Whether playing a famous gangster (Little Caesar), a Norwegian farmer (Our Vines Have Tender Grapes) or an intuitive insurance claims adjuster (Double Indemnity), his characters were always believable and human. He could play comedy or drama with equal skill. Never blessed with good looks, audiences nevertheless found it hard to look at anyone else when Robinson was in the frame; he is so arrestingly watchable, a natural scene stealer. Here, he plays Sol Roth, a former professor now working as a police ‘book’ and rooming with Thorn, played by Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man).
|Leigh Taylor-Young as Shirl|
One of the great action stars in the tradition of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, Charlton Heston was tall and lanky and laconic, a square-jawed beefcake with a masculine physique he never minded showing off on the screen. He’d achieved icon status with his larger-than-life roles in The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur but his performances were often (in my opinion, unfairly) criticized as wooden and two-dimensional. Here, as Detective Thorn, Heston gives a low-key performance that turns out to be one of his very best, especially in his memorable scenes with Robinson, with whom he’d remained close friends since they squared off as the saintly Moses and dastardly Dathan in Ten Commandments 17 years earlier.
The film focuses on Paradise Lost—all the things that sustain life on our home planet, things most people still take completely for granted.
Food and sensual pleasures are a central theme in Soylent Green. For 99% of the population, there’s nothing to eat except manufactured nutrient squares from the Soylent Corporation (which controls the food supply for half the world), presumably plankton and other nutrients from the sea.
|Paula Kelly as Martha|
Fresh food is exceedingly rare—and the sight of a wilted celery stalk, barely red apples and a fist-size slab of beef commandeered by Thorn is enough to bring Sol Roth to tears. The scene where Thorn and Roth prepare their modest feast is a masterpiece of fine acting and reveals the real camaraderie between Heston and Robinson and the joy they had working together on this film.
The unwashed masses wear kerchiefs and caps reminiscent of Soviet communists. When the allotted portions of Soylent Red and Green are cut due to shortages, the rioters rebel but then are picked up by tractors with ‘scoops’ sent in to disperse the crowds.
Beautiful women are commodities and come with apartments as ‘furniture,’ a package deal, possessions of the men, subject to violence by the vicious ‘apartment manager’ who really serves as a prison warden.
|Chuck Connors as Tab Fielding|
Beautiful Leigh Taylor-Young is Shirl, ‘furniture’ in the apartment of a powerful politician played by Joseph Cotten (Shadow of a Doubt, Niagara). It’s the murder of this man that sets the plot in motion.
A graduate of Northwestern University (also Charlton Heston’s alma mater), Taylor-Young was briefly married to Ryan O’Neal, whom she met on the set of the TV series Peyton Place. Extremely moved by the premise of this film, she later became a UN environmental activist herself. (And she is still working as an actor, most recently in the reboot of American Gigolo on Showtime.)
|Brock Peters as Chief Hatcher|
Heston was remote and distant on the set according to costar Leigh Taylor-Young, but always a consummate professional. (She found Robinson much more approachable, warm and kind.) Despite never getting to know each other, Heston and Taylor have a definite on-screen chemistry, especially in their romantic scenes. “You can turn on the hot water and let it run as long as you like,” Shirl purrs as a come-on to Thorn, but the pair end up conserving water anyway by sharing a shower together!
As Martha, the beautiful and talented singer dancer Paula Kelly (Sweet Charity) has little to do, though she adeptly turns a spoonful of strawberry jam (value: $150 per jar) into an ecstatic religious experience in a key moment and displays her athletic prowess in a violent fight scene with Heston and Chuck Connors (star of TV’s The Rifleman).
|Joseph Cotten as William Simonson|
Amid the cruelty and coldness of Soylent Green’s world is an undercurrent of profound sadness and melancholy. Those who knew the world before its breakdown are forced to adapt to its inhumanity in order to survive, tortured by dim memories of a better time. “The world was beautiful once,” Sol tries to explain to an uncomprehending Thorn.
When Sol learns the horrible secret behind the Soylent Corporation (and the impossibility of better days ahead), he is appalled and disillusioned. “I’m going home,” he sighs resignedly.
The right to die is the only benefit afforded the average citizen, the ability to vacate the hell on earth with dignity.
|Sol joins the downtrodden in the water line|
Euthanasia is an immersive Disney World-esque experience, featuring massive projections of Technicolor nature scenes and soothing classical music—which can only be enjoyed after drinking the poison sleeping potion from a cup proffered by white-clad attendants.
Here, swathed in a white sheet, a surprisingly small Eddie G is vulnerable and touching as he watches the majestic nature tableaux in rapturous ecstasy, long-ago images of a world that was once vibrant and alive. (Robinson himself passed away just weeks after filming on Soylent Green wrapped.)
|Exactly what is Soylent Green, exactly?|
Bodies wrapped in white sheets are unceremoniously dumped into garbage trucks, where they’re then taken to the Soylent factory for…well, I won’t reveal the big spoiler for anyone who hasn’t yet seen the film.
Directed by Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage, Mandingo) the story is told with surprisingly few special effects, pre-CGI, with just a few well-orchestrated crowd scenes to capture the film’s scope. Though usually billed as a sci-fi action movie, it’s more of a thoughtful and provocative psychological thriller. Soylent was the last movie to be filmed entirely on the backlot of MGM—within weeks after filming, the lot was sold off to build condos. The Golden Era of movies was officially over.
It’s 2023 now, and the world has not yet fallen to the depths depicted in this thought-provoking film, thank goodness. The question is, are we headed in the right direction yet?