For people like me belonging to that muddled Gen X/Gen Y transitional hybrid generation (our loyalties are staunchly Gen X, demographic timelines lump us with Gen Y), a film like Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green was not one we saw in first run theaters.
In fact, for most of us, our sole familiarity with it was thanks to the legendary Phil Hartman of Saturday Night Live (you remember–when it was actually still funny?) and his riotous satires of that very easy target: Charlton Heston.
My parents who obviously knew the film well were laughing just as hard as my friends and I who had no idea what he was talking about, but reveled in it nonetheless. Well, guess what folks. Soylent Green is way more than just people. Released in on Blu-ray in 2011, this year marks its 40th anniversary and the fact of the matter is–much as one might be inclined to scoff– Soylent Green is a dystopian nightmare that holds the strange dichotomy of being both dated and startlingly modern. A film with substantial narrative flaws, it nonetheless deserves serious appraisal as one of the boldest—and certainly most original— films of its day.
If the plot is familiar to 21st century audiences, as its modern day critics tend to accuse, that is because our modern day critics, with their oh-so exhaustive Wikipedia research, fail to realize that we’ve been ripping it off for the past 40 years.
In 2022, New York City has swelled to the population of 40 million people. The film’s opening title sequence—one of the most chilling ever put to screen—presents us with the state of affairs of New York City in the year 2022: a dilemma of cataclysmic overpopulation and the devastation of global warming has led to the human race being held at invisible gunpoint by a monopolistic food corporation called Soylent. Soylent feeds the worlds clamoring, hungering masses with colorful little wafers of chemically processed nutrients necessary for human survival: there’s “Soylent Red,” “Soylent Yellow,” and now, where our film begins, “Soylent Green.” (A wafer proclaimed to have been engineered thanks to the ‘plankton of the oceans.’) When a multi-billionaire named William Simonson (Joseph Cotten) is found dead and a New York private eye (an open-collared Charlton Heston), is casing the crime, begins to find troubling ties between Cotten’s death and the Soylent superpower.
The only connection the audience has with the tangible world that once was ours, before we fucked it up, is through the squirrely-whiskered, charming curmudgeon Edward G. Robinson. Here in his final film appearance, Robinson is the very soul of this film. The first line he utters in the films is a gravelly-voiced “Bullshit”—classic Edward G. Robinson—and he snaps off the television in the midst of a Soylent advertisement. Robinson is Heston’s roommate, and remembers what it meant to be really human. When Heston presents him with a stick of real celery and a slab of fresh beef, smuggled from Cotten’s opulent apartment, Robinson breaks down in tears of disbelief. (A head of lettuce fetches some $200.) Robinson waxes poetic about the days when ‘food was food, not scientific additions,’ which Heston has heard so often he can finish his sentences for him. They have a refreshingly human relationship in the midst of the monstrous anarchy around them: Theirs is a truly fine bromance.
Heston gets a lot of flack for his decidedly theatrical performances (let’s just say, Phil Hartman was spot on) and lets face it: rightly so. But at the same time, the actor has many moments that are demonstrative of his worth as an actor, and what is strange about Soylent Green is this: it is famous for an explosive, over-the-top final declaration that slams the film shut. (Even I, who’d never seen the film back in 1992, knew that Soylent Green was a human byproduct.) But for the other 99% of the film, and particularly in the scenes with Edward G. Robinson, Heston is, dare I say it, nuanced. I rather wish the film had been a truly straightforward buddy action flick between Edward G. and Charlton C.
Alas, Fleischer had other plans. As Heston descends deeper into the murder mystery, likewise the story structure begins to deteriorate. It. Is. A. Roller. Coaster. All we really know is that the more Heston nosey’s about, the more someone somewhere is trying to kill him. Meanwhile, Robinson is investigating the use of ‘plankton’ in Soylent Green, only to find out that the oceans have long since ceased to produce plankton. The ‘wonder’ protein is far more horrifying: human beings. As Robinson’s sanity unravels, so too does that of the film—but that is what makes it still so riveting to watch. The film literally loses its mind, as does its protagonists, leading up to the climax of the desperate Heston, trusted by Robinson with the truth of Soylent Green, closes the film by Heston shouting those words that have gained cult-classic status: “Soylent Green is people!”
Green is nothing if not gritty, which makes sense coming from a director like Richard Fleischer. Fleischer helmed the magnificent film noir The Narrow Margin–so dirty in its grain you can feel it under your fingernails–as well as the scathing, disturbing Compulsion. Both films exude extreme claustrophobia. (Narrow Margin, physically, Compulsion psychologically.) Then again…Fleischer also gave us Doctor Doolittle and Fantastic Voyage. There are a bit of both sensibilities at work here, but even though the outrageousness later films are what have popularly lent itself to Green, it is without a doubt the dark intimacy of Fleischer’s earlier crime dramas and noirs that trump the camp. This pulpy neo-noir (or is it a retro-noir? I give up) is filmed through a green filter lens for the exterior shots, giving it a deathly pall. Sure, it’s a gimmick. But it works.
Also to its credit, and perhaps entirely due to budgetary constraints, this futuristic film is about as 1970s as it gets–which turns out to have been a very shrewd decision. It does not fall into the trap of trying to look “futuristic.” This is no Logan’s Run, or Fahrenheit 451–we don’t have silver space-age couture or flying cars. It is highly unfair to judge a film made in 1973 for looking like it was made in 1973. (Hello, have you seen Back to the Future II lately? Still lots of fun, but Robert Zemeckis? You have two years left to get me a practically functional Hoverboard!) It is likewise unfair to judge a 40-year-old film for its technological naïveté. Don’t judge over the fact that the streets of New York are crowded with Lincoln Continentals. (Especially when every hipster in East Hollywood these days seems to be driving one and wearing mid 70s Ray bans, thank you Argo.)
Getting over these roadblocks are essential to recognizing the films eerie omniscience as it addresses a problem that we are still grappling with today, warning us of the disasters that could still very well await us.
Soylent Green offers no answers. Only the terrifying reality of what could happen if we don’t find the answers.