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Soylent Green (1973)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors, Brock Peters, Joseph Cotten

Written By: Stanley R. Greenberg, Harry Harrison (novel) Directed By: Richard Fleischer

The Short Version

Odds are that the movie’s twist has already been spoiled for you.

If it has, so has your best reason to see Soylent Green.

There’s lots of potential here, but it goes nowhere.

Dully oppressive or oppressively dull; the end result is the same.

For most audiences, it’s going to be very, very easy to skip Soylent Green.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Just don’t ask what they’re made of.  Really, you don’t want to know.

Pairs Well With...


According to this movie, a swig of real bourbon can make anything tolerable.  Can’t hurt to test the theory, I suppose.

“It was an assassination.  A well planned assassination.”

“You know this for a fact?”

“Four reasons.  One: the alarm system in the building was out of order for the first time in two years.  Two: the bodyguard who was supposed to be protecting him was conveniently out shopping.  Three: the punk that broke into the apartment didn't take anything.  And four: the punk who killed Simonson was no punk because he used a meat hook instead of a gun to make it look like a punk.”

“Well, if the punk didn't take anything from the apartment, what did you take?”

“Everything I could lay my hands on.”

What, that wasn’t the quote you were expecting?

If I were to venture a guess, I’d say the number of people who haven’t yet had the major twist-revealing line that defines Soylent Green spoiled for them is just slightly larger than the number of people who haven’t yet had the major twist-revealing line about Darth Vader from The Empire Strikes Back spoiled for them.  Indeed, despite knowing a literally countless number of science fiction fans, I know very few who have actually bothered to watch Soylent Green, but all of them know the twist.  For the benefit of the roughly half dozen English speaking net surfers who still don’t know, I won’t be the one to spoil it.

As for the rest of you…

If you already know the line I’m dancing around, then you probably have no reason to watch this movie.  It is, alas, generally much better remembered than it deserves to be.  That’s not to say that there isn’t anything good at all to be found here – on the contrary, and there’s at least one undeniably powerful moment to be had – but taken as a whole, I’d say that the average modern moviegoer would be hard pressed to sit through the whole thing without yawning and wondering what all the fuss was about.  For those who feel compelled to explore the entirety of the science fiction and/or social conscience canons, or for those who have a true love for classic film history, Soylent Green still has something to offer, but for the rest of you, I’d say you’re perfectly fine having someone just spoil the surprise for you and then going on having never seen it for yourself.

The movie begins with a two minute photo slide show meant to depict the history of New York City, starting with Dagguerreotypes and then moving on to black and white and color as time goes on.  The gist is supposed to be that over time, it gets more crowded and less happy.  When the action starts, we’re informed that the year is 2022, and the population of New York City is 40,000,000.  Despite the fact that environmental disasters have trashed the world’s natural food supplies and completely eliminated the concept of winter, people still don’t know what condoms and birth control pills are.  Space is at a significant enough premium that individual steps on staircases are rented out as sleeping places.  (No one can sleep outside, there’s a “curfew.”)  As a cop, though, Thorn (Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes) has the wherewithal to swing a tiny apartment with actual space for stuff, so long as he shares it with his friend and research assistant, Sol (Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity).

Of course, some folks have it better, and one of them is William Simonson (Jospeh Cotten, Citizen Kane), who sits on the Board of Directors of the Soylent Corporation, which provides literally half the world’s food in the form of processed squares referred to by color.  Alas, Simonson has gotten on somebody's bad side and he knows it, so when the assassin shows up to kill him, he puts up no resistance at all.  Now it’s up to Detective Thorn to figure out who did it and why, and in the process, he may end up learning the one secret that no one was ever supposed to discover…

Soylent Green is based very loosely on the novel “Make Room!  Make Room!” by Harry Harrison.  (Harrison’s story has a significantly different plot, and takes place in a ‘massively overpopulated’ 1999 that has a world population of 7 billion and an US population of 344,000,000.  Turns out he wasn’t off by much in some regards.)  It stands as part of a mid-1970s trend of “socially conscious” science fiction films that were more interested in using the future as a means of speculating on the human condition than in “looking futuristic,” and carries with it many of the decade’s most familiar themes.  What it doesn’t carry is any real sense of urgency.

Soylent Green runs for about an hour and thirty-seven minutes, and for the first hour and twenty, the term “motion picture” can seriously be called into question.  In theory, the story’s moving forward, sort of, but it’s only because the writer’s demanding it.  The director, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to share the writer’s sense of purpose, and instead sets the concept of pacing aside in favor of making sure the audience understands that New York of 2022 is indeed a dully oppressive – and oppressively dull – place.  He sells the audience the atmosphere at the expense of telling the story, to the point where it’s very easy to forget just what the whole point was supposed to be anyway (especially if the ending’s already been spoiled for you).

With two exceptions, that showcasing of the world backfires.  The dystopia that is the overcrowded New York of Soylent Green would probably play out beautifully in a book, but as it’s dispassionately presented on the screen, it falls oppressively flat.  Most people you see are asleep, and frankly, the idea that a city as hugely overcrowded as New York is supposed to be can successfully enforce (with an undermanned police force, by the way) a curfew that provides for completely empty streets (sound stages) is so ludicrous that it really does blow suspension of disbelief out the window.  It just doesn’t make sense.  Meanwhile, the concept that upper and even middle class apartments come with “furniture” – concubine women who are considered part of the rent – may be fascinating, but in the end, as happens to so much else with this movie, it goes nowhere.  The potential is there, but the execution is not.

One exception is a scene that was not initially in the script, but instead ad libbed on the fly by Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson.  In the world of Soylent Green, most adults have never seen what we’d call “real” food.  The number of veggies that would be used to garnish a hamburger in a restaurant costs what sounds relative to more than a month’s pay for those lucky enough to be employed (there’s over 50% unemployment, by the way), and actual meat is unheard of.  When Thorn and Sol happen to come by some “real food,” therefore, it’s a cause for celebration, and their impromptu feast really does have a magical quality to it, and a life that’s missing from most of the rest of the film.  This is all the guys in front of the camera – two real life friends of over twenty years – and has nothing to do with the director.

Speaking of those guys…

I must admit, I’ve never understood the appeal of Charlton Heston as an actor, because every time I see him, he doesn’t really act: he just blusters.  (Some would say the same of John Wayne, but there I’d beg to differ.)  Outside of the scene noted above and one I’ll get to in a minute, the same holds true here.  Heston basically barges through Soylent Green and delivers most of his lines with monotonous blunt force that’s supposed to be masquerading as presence.  Even his “impassioned” famous line from the end of the movie comes across as phony, and frankly, it doesn’t help that outside of the obvious devotion Thorn has toward his friend Sol, Heston’s character is completely unlikable.  Thorn is a corrupt thief, and Sol aside, what kindnesses he displays are in fact self-serving indulgences.  Given the double whammy of blunt force “acting” and a character who’s largely despicable, I’m always floored to see this role described as a shining example of heroism.  Really, folks, it’s not.

On the opposite side of things, there’s Edward G. Robinson.  If you are going to watch Soylent Green, he’s the most compelling reason to do so.  One of the most memorable (and frequently impersonated) character actors of the classic Hollywood era, Robinson knew that he was terminally ill at the time he took the role in Soylent Green, and understood that it would be his final film.  (He would, alas, pass on just two weeks after filming completed.)  Even if you aren’t aware of that fact, his performance is quietly powerful (and a great contrast to the toughs he was once known for playing, though perhaps more in keeping with his true cultured self off camera), and if you do know, it becomes all the more riveting.  Knowing it’s his swan song, Robinson delivers with grace, dignity, and a flash of old Hollywood that you’ll never see again.  This brings us to the film’s second exceptional scene, which is also undoubtedly its most powerful.

A common thread in “overpopulation science fiction” is the notion of government sanctioned assisted suicide centers that people are encouraged to utilize.  (All the better to keep the numbers down.)  In Soylent Green, the euphemism for this concept is “going home,” and when Sol learns the movie’s terrible secret, that’s what he chooses to do.  He walks into the cleanest building in the city, checks in, and is led into a room decorated with his favorite color, where he’s comfortably placed on a bed and given a delicious drink while his favorite music plays.  That drink, of course, is a slow but painless poison that will take twenty minutes to kill him while he enjoys beautiful nature imagery of Earth as it used to be playing on the walls.  Arriving late, Thorn can only watch from an observation booth and speak to his dying friend through an intercom.  In real life, this was the last scene that Edward G. Robinson would ever film, and both men knew it.  When Charlton Heston cries, it’s not fake.  He’s mourning his real life friend for all the world to see.  Whatever issues I may have with his performance elsewhere in Soylent Green, in this moment, I very much respect him.  Even the director – who frankly I consider to be absent from the rest of the film – understands the power and solemnity of the moment, and ironically, it is in this death scene that Soylent Green gets its only real touch of life.

What follows – including the part that all but maybe six or seven people know already – is pretty much an anticlimax, especially since once the secret’s out, the movie just plain ends.  The story’s not over, but the movie is.  Famous line, cut to credits, nothing gets resolved.  What was the point again?

I still haven’t decided whether it’s brilliant or insulting that the end credits play to the music and wall images of the aforementioned death sequence.  At the end of the day, I don’t suppose that it matters.

Bottom line, if the twist of Soylent Green has already been spoiled for you, you’re not going to get enough additional flavor from actually seeing the rest of the movie to make it worth your while.  If you’re going to watch this flick, you do so either as a dedicated genre fan, or to behold the powerful swan song of Edward G. Robinson in an otherwise oppressively dull film.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2012

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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