Soylent Green (1973) ****
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Soylent Green is… well I suppose I won’t give it away, but the last line of the film has become one the iconic movie quotes of all time. This is the first time I watched Soylent Green, but I already knew the surprising revelation at the very end. Whenever I know how a movie ends before seeing it for the first time, I always wonder how I would have reacted had I been ignorant of the outcome. For example, I knew what Rosebud was in Citizen Kane.
Even though I was disappointed that I knew what everything in Soylent Green was leading up to, ultimately I was pleasantly surprised to see that the film isn’t just fodder in order to reach the surprise ending. Though this should be considered a B-movie, I found it to be smart and entertaining. The journey to get to the final twist stands on its own as solid filmmaking.
The plot hit a nerve with me. Soylent Green is set in 2020 in a dismal reality where natural resources are on the verge of disappearing. Therefore, everyone must live off of rations. Going to the store to buy beef and strawberries is a thing of the distant past since everyone is poor and a jar of strawberries costs 150 dollars! Charlton Heston plays Detective Robert Horn, a tough as nails and cool as ice cop who discovers something truly awful while investigating the murder of a rich man (played by Joseph Cotton). The clues lead back to the Soylent Company which is responsible for eighty percent of the world’s resources. During his investigation, he has an affair with a “piece of furniture” named Shirl. Women called furniture cohabitate with a man so they can have a roof over their head and food to eat. Of course, these men expect quite a bit in return. Horn finds out that the victim went to confession, so he confronts the priest who is on the verge of insanity because his vocation requires him to provide for those in need. The problem, which is a universal problem in the film, is that everyone is in need and the city is too crowded (40 million people living in NYC).
Horn shares his apartment with a former professor named Sol (Edward G. Robinson—yes that Edward G. Robinson) who constantly talks about the good old days where people could get whatever food they wanted and electricity never ran out. Whenever Horn must leave his second floor apartment, he has to step around a huge number of people that sleep on every inch of the stairs. When Horn gets closer to the truth, he is followed and hunted by some thugs trying to take him off the trail permanently. Sol decides that he wants to voluntarily end his life, so he goes to some sort of suicide theater which allows a person to die while surrounded by scenes of natural beauty. Horn, despite the corruption of his higher ups in the police department, makes it his mission to reveal the truth about Soylent Green after promising this to Sol before he dies.
Edward G. Robinson is fantastic as Sol, and I’m extremely happy to say that I’ve finally found a Charlton Heston performance I enjoyed! He’s still got his Heston-isms, but he’s more restrained and much more likeable than in any other Heston film I’ve seen. Unlike The Omega Man, the dialogue in Soylent Green never goes over the top into camp territory. Actually, the screenplay should be applauded. One scene, unfortunately, betrays the film’s low budget. A man hunting Heston in the middle of a mob situation gets crushed by a bulldozer’s crane. Boy, that was executed pathetically, which is too bad because just about everything else works great in Soylent Green.
The movie’s pessimistic argument reads as a warning to consider carefully how each of us uses our resources. We take so many things for granted, and a film like Soylent Green forces us to think about a world without basic necessities. That’s a great point, and I applaud the film for having some real integrity. Sure, the message is good, but Soylent Green, at its most fundamental level, only aims to entertain the audience despite its gloomy cautionary tale. After the movie ended, I got to thinking whether hot dogs and Soylent Green have something in common. I wouldn’t be surprised.