Director: Richard Fleischer. Starring: Charlton Heston, Edwarg G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young. USA, 1973. IMDb: 7.3. My rating: 1.5/4. Dystopian future cli-fi.
– Why, in my day, you could buy meat anywhere! Eggs they had, real butter! Fresh lettuce in the stores.
– I know, Sol, you told me before.
(conversation between Sol and Det. Thorn)
Imagine Ellen Ripley would stop lurking around in a middle of the heat and starting a love affair with a crew member, because the alien suddenly went vegan? Stuff like “Soylent Green” is the worst kind of cinema. The trailers and marketing campaign say it is science fiction (adventure, action, thriller, put what’s right in your case). 10 minutes pass, and you think – well, maybe it will start now. Other 10 minutes are gone, and you say – well, it was just a good warm up, now is the time! And as you reach 30-minute mark, you admit – you have been cheated. It’s a fucking melodrama.
Without stepping back too much in the history, let’s remember some recent examples. “Suicide Squad” with all its incredible advertising campaign and seemingly crazy trailers turned out to be stuff for kids. More recent “Passengers” is another great example – travel on a new planet, science fiction, space ships, hibernation… and all for what? Just to tell us another silly love story with some weird moral background.
”Soylent Green” is loosely based on a book by Harry Harrison. I adore his early Steel Rat novels, he had a certain style and was witty. But this is a movie based on an ending, not style – everything else is a filler, and the ending is easy to predict after 15 minutes of watching. The main idea of the film is not that silly, but it does not have any context here. Fleischer simply heaps up as much stuff as he can, more and more with each frame. The acting is the same as in most 70-s sci-fi (nothing special), the costumes and special effects are ridiculous. The film simply looks incredibly dated.
New York, 2022, 40 million population, few jobs, pollution, lack of food, most people survive by eating artificial food produced by the Soylent Corporation. Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) investigates the murder of an important CEO. He shares his house with Sol (Edward G. Robinson), who is old enough to remember how real food tasted like.
Nothing is ever explained though – why the population reached this number? What happened to the normal food? Why the soap cannot be produced? Why animals are not used anymore? Why people can eat the green stuff the corporation produces and some domestic animals not? Where the oxygen comes from, if everything died? The film is not interested in these questions. It’s just a background that is never explored. “Soylent Green” is a cinema that lacks imagination and has a dubious scientific premise.
Most of the worlds problems here are explained with boring one-liners like ”Chocolate bars cost $150 now” and ‘If I were rich, I would smoke one of these a day”.
But what the director Richard Fleischer is sincerely interested in is depicting women as ”furniture” – yes, this is not my invention, but this is the exact term used in the film. You can see some other female characters sleeping on streets, but they are shown barely for few seconds to create the background. Women in this movie are a mere functional mechanism helping men to satisfy their needs. They are sold together with the apartment. One could say that most sci-fi of that time depicted women in somehow similar manner and while it may be true to a certain extent (even ”Forbidden Planet”), it was almost never the aim – at least, not in good science fiction movies.
What about Heston? He was very interested in this story and was in contact with Harry Harrison (I am not sure whether it was Heston who bought the rights for adaptation). Heston was a big movie star of that time (”Planet of Apes” with various sequels, ”The Omega Man”, ”The Ten Commandments”, ”Ben-Hur”) and many movies he did were one of most financially successful of that time. ”Soylent Green” is for sure not his best movie. Heston looks just like a typical tired tough cop, following his duties and chasing bad guys when he needs to. Nothing special.
But there is a bright spot in the movie – Edward G. Robinson. His career lasted for about 50 years and 100 movies. You believe him from first frames, as his character, Sol, still remembers how real food tastes like. In the plastic world of “Soylent Green”, he reminds how real people (and good acting) look like. When Sol eats a piece of lettuce, saying that the last time he tried it was 50 years ago, you believe him. “Soylent Green” has an amazing death scene, where Sal decides that his time has come and heads to a special place, where people are prepared for death. He passes away, watching his final short movie about nature, wild animals and trees. Edward G. Robinson died 12 days after the shooting was finished. When the death scene was shot, he knew already he had very little time left.
Worth watching? Fleischer was obviously more interested in showing action, pretty girls and melodrama than science fiction and truly elaborated dystopian society. Surprisingly, “Soylent Green” is often mentioned in various 70-s science fiction top lists – probably because most people saw it once in their youth? It even won the Saturn Award as best sci-fi film in 1973 (but that is a different story). The central idea is never explored here – it seems that the director kept it till the end of the movie just because otherwise there would be no other reason to finish it. “Soylent Green” looks dated, scientifically dubious and often silly in how it describes the world which is not believable here. It doesn’t really depict a possible future, rather some cheap decorations used to create the movie. Only a bright performance by Edward G. Robinson helps somehow the film – his last and (probably) personal role.
Watch instead: “Metropolis” (1927), “Fahrenheit 451″ (1966), ”A Clockwork Orange” (1971). These are some great examples of amazing dystopias made even before ”Soylent Green”. Of course there are many other good examples made later, but this kind of comparison is more suitable here.