Grade: BSoylent Green (1973)

Director: Richard Fleischer

Stars: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Joseph Cotten, Leigh Taylor-Young

Release Company: MGM

MPAA Rating: PG

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Richard Fleischer: Soylent Green


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Spoiler Alert: If you've never seen Soylent Green or seen the Saturday Night Live spoof, read no further and watch the film first (without listening to the director's commentary since he gives away the classic end speech early on as well). Those old enough to have seen Charlton Heston pound his fist into the Forbidden Zone sands at the end of Planet of the Apes upon its initial release also likely saw Soylent Green as first conceived—with its climax left unsullied by pop culture spoilers. BUT if by some chance you've never heard about the true nature of the "yummy" Soylent Green wafers feeding mankind in 2022, stop reading right now and pop in the DVD!
Keeping in the spirit of the environmental movement that began to flourish in 1970, Soylent Green's opening montage rapidly establishes that humanity has created a literal Hell on Earth through over industrialization and over population. Global warming makes the entire planet sweat like Georgians in July, destroying much plant and animal life and forcing most humans into urban areas. Like rats, they sleep wherever they can—crowding into church sanctuaries or creating a human carpet over the stairs that Detective Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) must crawl through to reach the tiny generator powered apartment he shares with Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson).

With food now at a premium, the Soylent Corporation has taken over food production, so the masses stand in Russian style bread lines for processed high energy vegetable concentrates—Soylent Red, Soylent Blue, Soylent Orange . . . and the crowd favorite, Soylent Green—rationed out only on Tuesdays. Much older, Sol fondly remembers when he could get beef from any grocer any day of the week, as well as real butter, eggs and lettuce. Representing the transitional generation, Sol holds on to the remnants of his Jewish heritage and shares his early remembrances of a beautiful world while cynically stating that "people were always rotten."

This misanthropic statement forms the core of Soylent Green, adding to the oft quoted "Soylent Green is people"—appropriately viewed through director Richard Fleischer's handmade foggy green filter, the masses are about as lifeless as those pale green wafers. Unlike Heston's epic Biblical worlds brought to life in the 50's, the locals in 2022 Manhattan for the most part have given up on searching for a meaningful existence—they seek only survival. William Simonson (Joseph Cotten in his last role) has discovered a horrible secret but stoically accepts his fate instead of assuming a hero's stance, and the priest he's shared the secret with continues quietly going about his daily duties without fighting the evil forces surrounding him. Likewise, Simonson's live-in call girl, Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young) accepts her life role as nothing more than apartment furniture, though she does show subtle signs of humanity by caring for Simonson and Thorn.

Thorn, of course, assumes the role of hero (we expect nothing less of Heston), but this occurs only due to his connection with Sol, by far the most human character in the science fiction melodrama. Fleischer works hard to force Heston past his well chiseled persona to actually emote, pairing him with Taylor-Young under the sheets and in the shower, but even she can't get Heston to part the waters totally. Heston does hit his prescribed marks and lie on the couch to give the impression of relaxing; however, only Edward G. Robinson actually reaches his interior. Those ARE real tears falling from the Chuckster's eyes when he gazes upon Sol's poignant farewell. Heston need not resort to his Ben Hur technique of burying his eyes to feign heartbreak; this time the tears flow . . . effortlessly and honestly. Immediate "method acting" is forced on Heston naturally since he knew that Robinson truly was dying and that this would be the last scene that the legendary actor would ever perform. Thus, the tears are real—a gut wrenching fusion of fiction and real life drama. That alone makes the film well worth examining.

Even without the periphery sentiment, the film stands up well enough over time, despite losing its original potency due to widespread knowledge of the premise throughout pop culture. The atmosphere and Edward G. Robinson still stand out while Heston actually loosens up and plays a fallible human this time. In such a depressing universe the "hero" is not above doing what any corrupt policeman would do—strip the crime scene of goodies for personal consumption and hit upon a willing sex toy. It's hard to remain a heroic icon in a world where humanity is reduced to groveling for basic needs, but that's the sobering point that Heston makes: "Next thing they'll be breeding us like cattle for food. You've gotta tell them. You've gotta tell them!"

If you're lucky, you got to see the film as originally intended (without knowing the "secret" beforehand), and if you've read to the bottom of this without having seen the film, that simply means you ignored the instructions in the opening paragraph. So don't blame me for spoiling your fun. Like the spoonful of 2022 strawberry jam that goes for $150 a pop, Soylent Green still contains enough pleasures even with the "secret" so well known—Heston as flesh and blood human, cheesy dialogue, and Robinson's moving death scene. Fleischer paints a gloomy world that we certainly pray we'll never see in real life, but hopefully the film is doing its part to prevent such a dismal outcome.

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