The early seventies saw the beginnings of the environmental movement here in the United States. The first Earth Day, a celebration of the environment, was held in Central Park in 1970. Of course, Hollywood, never slow to jump on a trend, began to invest in ecological themed films. Perhaps one of the most famous is Soylent Green, released in 1973. Set in 2022 it shows a desolate world where man’s ignorance of the ecology has resulted in disaster. The air is dark and polluted, food is in short supply and the government is forced to provide soylent, an artificial protein source. Most coveted amount the different types of soylent is soylent green. With over population and food shortage as the main problems in this society not much thought is required to guess the (then) shocking ending of the film. Charlton Heston plays Thorn, a police detective concerned with keeping his job and just plain old survival in this harsh world. His assistant in his investigation is a Police Book Sol (Edward G. Robinson), an elderly man well versed in information gathering and analysis. Thorn is assigned the investigation of William Simonson, a high ranking executive in the Soylent Corporation, the government protected company that controls the world’s meager supply of food. Thorn is taken into the world of the ‘haves’, those stellar personages that feel it is their rights to have far more than the common man. Torn sees a huge living space, unlike his cramped quarters, real food (it seems Soylent executives don’t have to actually eat their products), and Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young) the late Mr. Simonson’s furniture. Yes, in this futuristic world women are not only treated as furniture it is the official designation for a mistress. The nightmare of New York City in 2022 is not just a setting it is a character in itself. Populated by over 40 million people there is no way to escape the constant crush of humanity except the suicide centers where you can end your life in a drug induced euphoria in a peacefully isolated room. While Torn is a basically honest cop he is not above taking some of the food to share with Sol, his surrogate father and confidant. It is just another way to show that with the loss of personal freedoms society must become more lax in such matters. This is basically a screen play about ‘the system’ as a corrupting influence on the people that live within it, a very popular theme back in those days. In order to appreciate any aspect of this film you really have to view it from the viewpoint of the time that produced it.
While not his best role this film stands as one of the most famous for Heston. His closing line revealing the truth about Soylent Green has become a staple for everything from Saturday Night Live to the Simpsons. He does show Thorn as a man with two distinct personalities, the hard NYC cop to those in the world and the son like devotion he displays to his Book, Sol. Heston has typically been able to pull this contrast within a character far better than many of the tough guy actors in Hollywood. This was the last film for two greats in acting, Robinson and Joseph Cotton. Cotton’s role as the lamented Mr. Simonson may be brief but displayed that to the end that a real actor such as this can present any role with imagination and skill. Robinson as Sol is touching. His performance conveys such humanity, such expression that even for a Science Fiction tale like this it provides a fitting end to a great career. Sol remembers another world, a time when things where not so horrible and it gives the audience a means to identify. He also shows the importance of learning from those that have experienced life to such a degree. Leigh Taylor-Young does well with such a socially repugnant role of ‘furniture’. Remembering that this film was not only made during the start of the environmental movement but also during the rise of feminism she must have received a lot of flack for this role. She handles it with an inner grace that shows a talent that unfortunately did not receive much in the way of prime roles.
Director Richard Fleischer is no stranger to the art of movie making. He was at the helm for such classics as ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’, ‘Tora! Tora! Tora’ and the Jazz Singer. These credits show the man can fill the demands of many genres. Here, he relies on the tried and true cinematic tricks of pushing the color palette, often to the orange and yellows, to depict the heavy, polluted air of the time. His ever present numerous extras crushing in on every scene makes the NYC of today seem deserted. While the subject matter is depressing Fleischer never lets the pace of the film drag. The audience is constantly kept focused on the plot. The only thing here is the main plot of the murder is almost reduced to a McGuffin, a plot device important to the characters but not to the audience. The murder is just an excuse to look into the inner workings of the Soylent Corporation. His use of music to counterpoint the action is very well executed, the peaceful classical music in the suicide room in stark juxtaposition to the mayhem outside. Fleischer provides a film of warning that still holds up decades after its first showing. With concerns with the erosion of personal freedoms this story is still a cautionary tale.
Warner Brothers have given this film a better than average presentation. The picture is sharper than many of this time. While the anamorphic 2.35:1 picture is gritty this was intentional and meant to set the futurist mood and themes. There are some noticeable defects in the video but against an overall clear presentation altogether forgivable. The audio is Dolby two channel mono. It is richer than many such soundtracks, providing a bit more in the way of bass. You still would be well served to run the sound through a Prologic emulation like Theater mode to get the feeling of seeing this film in its initial movie house presentation. There is a commentary track by Fleischer and Taylor-Young, two featurettes including a well deserved tribute to Robinson and the theatrical trailer. This one is worth it, even if just for the famous last line.