Thursday, June 28, 2007

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Soylent Green (1973)

It's the year 2022. People are still the same. They'll do anything to get what they need. And what they need is the Soylent Green."

-Ad-line for Soylent Green.

In 2007, virtually every film lover with a good movie IQ knows the secret of Soylent Green. It's a punchline that is surpassed only by the climactic revelation of another Charlton Heston sci-fi film, 1968's Planet of the Apes. Still, our familiarity with the movie's final narrative "twist" does Soylent Green, directed ably by Richard Fleischer, a disservice. For the film is a brilliantly-crafted example of dystopic futurism; a daring vision second only, perhaps, to Blade Runner. And like that 1982 Ridley Scott classic, Soylent Green utilizes the parameters of a familiar genre - the police procedural - to weave its caustic story of a future world gone awry. This is a future noir; a detective story that has a devilish but cunning endgame: to lead us, bread crumb by bread crumb to a commentary on the "path" mankind is currently on; and a destiny it may not be able to evade if we don't change our ways. And soon.

Based on the novel "Make Room! Make Room!" by Harry Harrison, Soylent Green evidences an authentic apocalypse mentality. It is a gloomy and perhaps prophetic vision of the year 2022. New York City is populated by some forty million people; 20 million of them out of work. The city streets are bathed constantly in a nausea-provoking yellow haze, a result of "the greenhouse effect" (global warming...), and the innumerable homeless denizens of this urban blight sleep on staircases, in parked cars, you name it, all the while suffering in roasting temperatures (the average daily temperature according to the film is 90 degrees.) The Big Apple experiences numerous power black-outs (sound familiar, Manhattanites?), yet it isn't just the city where things have turned bad. We also learn from the dialogue that the oceans "are dying," "polluted," and that there is very little good farmland remaining in America. As for Gramercy Park, all that's left of the foliage there is a pitiful sanctuary where a few anemic trees grow in relative safety. Food supplies are tight, and there is strict rationing of supplies. In what is perhaps its most visually-stunning sequnce, Soylent Green escorts the viewers to an outdoor urban market on a typical Tuesday ("Tuesday is Soylent Green Day!") and reveals what happens when supplies of food are exhausted. There's a riot, and a confrontation between helmeted police forces and the throngs of starving people. It looks like a WTO riot - times ten.

Just yesterday, the Associated Press reported that 50% percent of the world's population now lives in cities, so Soylent Green's phantasm of a stressed, overpopulated City-State, run by a craven politician, Governor Santini looks markedly more plausible today than it did in 1973; and certainly the climate-change apocalypse feels more relevant in the Zeitgeist of the 21st century too. But where Soylent Green truly acquires frisson as cinematic prophecy is in the depiction of "Two New Yorks" (or Two Americas, as Presidential candidate John Edwards might say.) To wit, there is no middle-class remaining in New York City. It's extinct. In this U.S., you're either part of the teeming, homeless, starving masses (who inhabit every nook and cranny in the metropolis...), or separated from the poor and the unpleasant squalor of street life in glorious and luxurious apartment complexes. There, in spacious air-conditioned quarters, the super-rich play video games on home consoles (another nice bit of prophecy for 1973...), enjoy hot and cold running water (another luxury denied the masses), purchase black market items like real vegetables and beef, and are protected by security systems. The Haves and the Have Mores have separated themselves from the rest of humanity, and ignore their plight. It's easy, what with the video games, the TVs, the refrigerators...

Charlton Heston - one of my favorite actors, though I despise most of his political stances - again fronts what is undeniably a leftist science-fiction vision, and does so as only Heston can: with swaggering charm, arrogance and unswerving intelligence. In this case, he plays Detective Thorn of the 14th Precinct; a man who is a product of his time; meaning that he is mostly ignorant of history and just trying to survive and do "his job." Thorn is just one among many corrupt cops. For instance, when he's assigned to the murder (actually an assassination) of a rich man, William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotten) of the Soylent Corporate Board, Thorn steals as much as he can from the crime scene. He takes a bottle of bourbon, some refrigerated beef (a rare commodity), and a few reference books about Soylent Green, a tightly-rationed "miracle food" that is ostensibly based on Plankton and other sea life. Thorn also partakes of another luxury in Simonson's apartment - "The furniture." In this case, said furniture is a woman, Shirl (fetching Leigh Taylor Young), who comes with the apartment, regardless of tenant. Yep, in this future beautiful women are literally sex objects; their wares another luxury for those who can afford them. It's good to be rich.

Investigating the death of Simonson, Thorn is assisted by a "Police Book." Since electric power routinely goes out, there are no longer any reliable police information databases, google searches or electronic systems to rely on. Instead, every detective has an assistant or partner, a "book," a researcher who marshals what resources he can (including an elaborate Book Exchange") to learn about relevant suspects and perps. Thorn's "book" is named Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), an elderly man who remembers how things used to be: wide open spaces; beautiful oceans; untouched fields and so forth. He recalls a world of hot/cold running water, "real" butter and strawberry jam that didn't cost $150.00 per jar. In one of Soylent Green's finest and most memorable scenes, Sol prepares for Thorn a dinner like the ones he used to eat years earlier; one that includes crisp apples, beef stew, and other lost delicacies. The time and attention spent on what viewers today would consider a normal meal - but to these characters is an extravagance - makes a cogent point about a life of limited resources; and a booming population's overtaxing of the planet. These little things that we take for granted are suddenly big things; and suddenly as a viewr you realize how "lucky" we are in America; how we live in a world of plenty. A later scene involves Thorn taking his first hot shower in months (with Shirl as his companion; lucky guy...), and again, Soylent Green deploys simple imagery - it focuses on the small things - to establish a truly miserable future. But one which is not at all unrealistic or unbelievable.

The quiet, intimate nature of the dinner scene (and later the shower scene), not only do much to establish character relationships (for instance, Thorn doesn't know how to eat an apple...), but also reinforce that recurring idea of those things lost in this future; in the hustle-bustle of so-called "progress." It's all extremely touching and yet markedly unromantic and unsentimental. There's no candy-coating here about days that were better in the past; when the human animal was a better species. "People were always rotten," establishes Sol. "But the world was beautiful." In some ways, this dialogue makes the point of Soylent Green more eloquently - and more heart-wrenchingly - even than the famous coda.

Stylistically, Soylent Green is a more accomplished film than it has often been credit for being. It begins impressively with sepia tone images from American history. We see in old photographs the advancement of technology during the American century; the rapid progression from a rural, agricultural country to an industrialized one. The movie escorts us in this montage from Huckleberry Finn-style views of wide open spaces and serenity to - over just a few seconds of screen time - overpopulated, bustling modernity. As the montage continues, the images come at us faster and faster; form echoing content. The world of the cities, of airplanes, of cars, moves faster than the world of covered wagons and farmers so it's natural the images would move quicker. Again, it's a touching and surprisingly effective way to commence a science fiction film, and it puts a larger context upon the story. This montage reminds the viewer where we've been before taking us where we're going; into the uncertain future.

Later, the film's most often discussed scene, a depressed and hopeless Sol Roth goes "home," to a place in the middle of the city (which resembles a sports arena...) where he can be quickly and clenaly euthanized by the State. In this location, he's provided a twenty-minute death ceremony in what looks like an I-Max theater and salon, with the images of his youth projected all around him. Sol sees beautiful oceans, wild deer, endless fields of flowers and so forth, all while bathed in a light of his favorite color (orange) and to the tune of his favorite genre of music (classical; make that light classical). This death montage, like the montage at the beginning of the film, reminds audiences of the past; what has been lost in the modern technological age. It's important in the film not just as a tender goodbye to Sol. No, Thorn witnesses these scenes too...and weeps at the power of them. He is a man who has grown up in the "ugly" future world- a place literally devoid of nature - and come to accept the limitations of his world. He didn't know, nay "couldn't have known" what the world once was. And so his mentor, Sol, has passed on one final bit of wisdom to him; to the next generation: a natural vision of what human existence COULD be. Until Thorn sees this pastoral montage, he didn't really know that there was an option; didn't really understand what had been lost in the crush of industrialization and overpopulation.

Soylent Green is a film dominated by powerful, stunning imagery. One vision that struck me, and which I had forgotten about entirely, finds Thorn stumbling upon the corpse of a woman in an alley by dark of night. Strapped to her by a makeshift wire leash is her still-living - and weeping - child. This image speaks of the film's narrative context in a manner that dialogue or exposition simply cannot. The child was strapped to her mother, no doubt, because Mom didn't want them to be separated from one another in the maddeningly overpopulated streets - perhaps at the outdoor food market. So she jury-rigged this leash of sorts to keep them together. What Mom couldn't have predicted was that she would die (either of starvation or perhaps she was murdered...) and the child would be anchored to her; trapped. Good intentions have gone awry (likely another metaphor for the film's overriding theme: of something ostensibly good [technology and modernization] having unintended consequences.) But what is so meaningful about this image is that it remains wholly unsentimentalized. Nobody comments on the event or the tragedy. Heston's character "rescues" the child by taking the little moppet to a nearby church. But he says nothing. The movie has no comment on the child or the dead parent. This scene is so "normal" in the world of Soylent Green that it isn't worth a passing remark, even an exclamatory curse. If this had been a Spielberg film, we would have had Liam Neeson providing his "Oscar Moment," commenting on "how could we have come to this; how can we allow our children to suffer?" Soylent Green doesn't provide us with such catharsis.

In the cutthroat world of Soylent Green, there is no time to for such hand-wringing. Life is too difficult. Millions of tragedies go unnoticed on the streets every day, no doubt. Why is this any different? The film's ending also speaks to this truth in some fashion. The film offers a tight zoom on Thorn's bloody arm and hand as he is carried away on a stretcher. He shouts the truth for all to hear ("Soylent Green is made out of people") but he goes, essentially, unheard. We understand this because the film goes entirely black around his gnarled, dying hand, in essence restricting his presence in the frame. The frame itself has shrunk. The association with this image is that the truth in Soylent Green's world can't be heard; it holds only a "sliver" of space in the overlapping, multitudinous dialogue of a City-State overrun and failing.

If you're so inclined, you can gaze at the things Soylent Green gets wrong and laugh at the picture, I guess. Charlton Heston wears neckerchiefs throughout the film, an odd fashion choice. There are rotary phones in evidence too (in 2022!). That sort of thing. But it strikes me that on the balance, Soylent Green gets more right about "the future" than it gets wrong. It accurately predicts the erosion of the middle class, the obsession with global climate change, and the ever-growing and corrupting cathexis of politics with corporations (Soylent Green and Governor Santini are in on a deep dark conspiracy). The specter of "illegal immigration" and a "third world invasion" that some pundits now fear so greatly is also bubbling just beneath the surface here: look at how many of the extras are non-whites; non Europeans. In broad strokes, the film also addresses the danger and inevitability of a police state with a rapidly increasing population out of control, and more. In some senses, Soylent Green even points to the ubiquitous nature of entertainment...we even watch TV when we're about to die. Death is rendered palatable through the comfort of zoning out; of being - literally - a couch potato. In addition to these still-relevant themes, Soylent Green is a handsome production. There are some remarkably effective matte paintings in the film; ones that still hold up well. And Fleischer makes good use of his "extras," filling every frame and every moment of the film (save those at the spacious apartment at Chelsea west), with unkempt, exhausted-looking, world-weary bodies.

Soylent Green
presents an oppressive, dark future. There's no "out" for the characters (as there is in Blade Runner, for instance, with the inclusion of the off-world colonies and other worlds to explore.") Indeed, Shirl suggests "running" at some point to Thorn, and he rightfully replies "where are we going to go?" Every city in America is just like this city; and it is illegal to live the country. In bringing forward this point, Soylent Green suggests that if we don't change our ways - we will all be living in a purgatory of our own making.

I hadn't watched this film in a number of years, and I must admit, I was staggered by how powerful it is today; given the context of the 21st century. I highly recommend you watch it again if you are inclined. I would hope that critics would give it a second look too. So many "Best of" sci-fi movie lists are obsessed with the fairly recent: Star Wars, The Terminator or The Matrix. I would like to make the case that perhaps Soylent Green belongs on that list as well.


  1. Michael A. De Luca1:53 PM

    Wow. I am blown away. I don't know what your review makes me want to do more, weep or rent "Soylent Green". I cannot help but think of "The House Between" montage detailing the origins of the house, a great cautionary look that parallels the opening montage of "Soylent Green". I think of the decaying of the earth, and all the self-appointed "scientists" and doubting Thomases who think they understand the climate change more than cilmate change NASA researchers. I think Brecht's nihilism, "The Army Song", and how "blood is blood and red is red, and the army's still recruiting". Is hell that far off? Has technology caused such a disconnect that we have all reduced ourselves to advert-sucking mechanoids to the point where it would take Roy Batty to show us how to be human? But like all good science fiction(or since you mentioned Spielberg,
    "Munich"), "Soylent Green" is a film that raises more questions than it answers, much like this killer of a review.

  2. Thanks Michael for your great comment. I appreciate the compliment on the review; and reading your thoughts! I'm always glad when I see a comment is from you!