Charlton HestonJoseph CottenEdward G. Robinson
Soylent Green
Medium: film
Year: 1973
Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: Stanley R. Greenberg, Harry Harrison
Keywords: SF, dystopia
Country: USA
Actor: Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors, Joseph Cotten, Brock Peters, Paula Kelly, Edward G. Robinson, Stephen Young, Mike Henry, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Roy Jenson, Leonard Stone, Whit Bissell, Celia Lovsky, Dick Van Patten
Format: 97 minutes
Website category: SF
Review date: 5 August 2009
Much as with the original Planet of the Apes, all I knew about Soylent Green was Charlton Heston's final line. It's a good ending, but knowing it in advance doesn't spoil the movie at all. You see, they don't really present it as a twist. It's almost missing the point to call it predictable, since it feels almost inevitable given everything we've seen of this dystopian future.
This is the only movie to date based on a Harry Harrison novel, specifically Make Room! Make Room! (1966). I like Harrison. This wasn't one of his flippant ones, but instead an exploration of the consequences of rampant overpopulation, an issue no one had ever heard of when he first heard about it from an Indian man in 1946. I can't remember whether I've read it or not, but it doesn't matter too much apparently the film changes a whole bunch of stuff, including the big revelation that's common knowledge even people who'll never see this film in their lives. I've also heard that Harrison's book didn't have the film's soylent green at all. Anyway, the film adaptation won the 1973 Nebula Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film.
The first thing that strikes a modern viewer is how today it feels at once super-dated and super-topical. It's dealing with all kinds of issues that are huge at present, a much bigger deal now than they were when Harrison was flagging them up. Global warming has turned the film's New York into a third world slum, complete with weather to suit. Charlton Heston has to climb over people sleeping on the stairs every time he enters or leaves his apartment. (Don't they ever go anywhere?) The seas and rivers are poisoned, most of the world's animal life is extinct and a small piece of beef is "really fantastic" and "something you've never seen before".
The datedness involves the lack of computers. Charlton Heston employs Edward G. Robinson full-time to do what any modern film would do in seconds with the internet. Leigh Taylor-Young plays a coin-operated arcade game which I'm guessing would have been state of the art back then, but today... no. However a little thought reveals that this actually makes sense, since the world's fallen into such a state that you're lucky if you have electricity and running water. Big expensive high-rise apartment blocks will have scanners and alarms, but they have to make the parts themselves because the original manufacturers are of course out of business.
This 2022 certainly isn't generic, though. There are quirks. The biggest would be the "furniture", which is a demeaning name for women employed by the wealthier apartment blocks to offer sexual services to the tenants. They'll stay there for years. There are government-sponsored suicide parlours and, most bizarrely, the scoops. If there's a riot, the police send in the scoops. These look ridiculous and it's impossible to imagine them ever being effective in real life, but maybe they'd work in riots so dense that there's no other way of clearing them. The riot we see here is pretty good, but it needed to be even more intense to make these work. As the name suggests, they scoop up their victims. They have a shovel attachment. What happens after that I'm not sure... maybe there's a holding tank in the back of the scoop, or maybe the victims just jump back down and go back to their rioting.
All this is great. It's also very 1970s in how wholeheartedly it throws itself into portraying its dystopia. If they remade this film today, they'd make it more about the hero's journey and you'd be waiting for them to get to the point. Here, no. In the seventies, shit happens. Live with it. Seventies cinema had a gift for thrusting you into its world in a way you don't get today. It's rough, but it makes it hard to look away. Here the dystopia almost is the story, with Charlton Heston's biggest concern being simply his everyday life. He's luckier than most in that he has a job and he's good at it, but you couldn't accuse him of throwing his heart and soul into his police work. On the contrary, he's an appalling man who'll steal anything that isn't nailed down, especially if it belonged to a murder victim. It's shocking to see how unprofessional he's prepared to be over something as simple as running water in the bathroom. If nothing else he's a survivalist and I'm now keener than ever to see The Omega Man.
This is a 1973 film set in 2022, so by now we're closer to its future setting than we are to the year it was made. I look forward to revisiting Soylent Green in the year 2022 and seeing how it holds up then, although this is a bit of a problem for anyone watching it today in that hardly any of the cast have seen or even heard of things like trees, rivers and the natural world. How old's Charlton Heston? He was born in 1923, so he was fifty when this film came out and the contemporary audience must have been meant to assume that things were about to get ugly really soon. I can see the logic in that. It won't be as effective to shout doom and gloom at the world if you've added a footnote to the effect that "by the way, none of this will have any effect during your lifetime". Nevertheless today this means that instead of being warning about how the world might end up if we're not careful, it's instead a film about an alternative universe that diverged from our own forty years ago. Of course that doesn't mean it's not still possible to enjoy the film, but I suspect it'll work a little better again in 2022 when there's no longer this slightly distracting mix of future dystopia and alt.universe history to worry about.
Incidentally, this film's "hahaha, ridiculous" population of New York of 40 million. These days it's almost exactly half that. I wonder how close we'll have got by 2022?
This isn't really an actors' film, but there are two names you'll have heard of. Charlton Heston is of course a big movie star by any definition but his CV is more specifically impressive from an SF point of view, what with this, The Omega Man, Planet of the Apes, etc. Things were different in the days before Star Wars, weren't they? The other famous name is Edward G. Robinson in his last movie role. He was dying of cancer and didn't tell the production team, eventually passing away twelve days after the end of shooting. The only person Robinson told was Charlton Heston himself. The film has a scene where Heston's character is crying for Robinson, but those tears are real.
Whoops, out of time. I think I've said most of what I wanted to say.
This isn't a comfortable film, but it shouldn't be. It's wholehearted, it's a little shocking and it's brutal when it wants to be. It's not always particularly worried about pushing forwards its detective story, but then again neither is Heston's character.