The Landmark SOYLENT GREEN Is Required Viewing for Every True Science Fiction Fan
Jan 13, 2013
I love science fiction films. Of all film genres, sci-fi is most useful to artists and audiences of any generation.
Because each of us can grasp an elementary understanding of the world of tomorrow when it’s properly depicted. And those environments can stylistically be almost anything the writers, directors, producers, or actors need to tell their stories. The world of tomorrow is clay, and it can be as dark, dreary, and dismal as the streets of Ridley Scott’s 2019 Los Angeles in BLADE RUNNER. It can be as crisp, clean, and antiseptic as Michael Anderson’s 2274 Dome City in LOGAN’S RUN. Or it can be as flat, hot, lifeless, and barren as George Miller’s Australian wasteland in MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR. This boundless flexibility gives us worlds that be customized to tell almost any story. Thus, sci-fi films tend to be those that viewers can wrap their heads around with relative ease.
The future can be whatever it needs to be, but, if SOYLENT GREEN teaches us anything, it’s that we should be careful – very careful – of what we eat.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I encourage you to skip down to the last paragraph for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of minor hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Overpopulation is slowly choking mankind’s ability to feed itself on the streets of New York in 2022, population 40,000,000. Police detective Thorn (played by screen legend Charlton Heston) is assigned to what appears to have been a homicide: while his beloved Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young) was away, William Simonson (Joseph Cotten) was struck down in his apartment. Despite the protests of his captain to close the case, Thorn presses on, convinced that Simonson’s death wasn’t a random killing but may’ve been an act of contract murder. The nearer he gets to the truth, the greater the risk to his own life and limb. Before he knows it, he’s uncovered the tip to a stark conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of the government.
There’s plenty to love about SOYLENT GREEN (except for the aftertaste! LOL). Clearly, it’s a memorable look at one horrific future. During the day, the streets are clogged with people doing everything they can to scrap up a few colored squares of food; while at night, a strict curfew is enforced, pushing the disheveled lot indoors where they’re forced to sleep in any open space they can beg, borrow, or steal. Only the working poor have what suffices as an apartment, and only the privileged few can afford lavish, penthouse living where fresh strawberries come at a price of $150 a bottle and stunningly beautiful women are considered as human ‘appliances’ that convey from one owner to the next.
Besides the context, there’s another powerful metaphor at work throughout the entire motion picture. It doesn’t get clarified until Thorn’s friend, Sol Roth (the veteran Edward G. Robinson), announces his intentions to go “home,” a figure of speech referring to death. In this advanced society, members get to choose when they die: they report to a government processing center, sign the requisite forms, and are given a unique 20-minute audio-visual experience of their design before death is chemically induced. I’m sure others have postulated the meaning of this practice, but, to me, I thought it meant that consciousness is bookended by elements of our own creation (a meaty concept, indeed); what lies beyond consciousness is the true stuff of legend. Interestingly enough, director Richard Fleischer uses this same technique – a roughly 3 minute audio-visual sequence – to both open and close the picture, implying that the audience experienced full awareness while losing themselves in the film … now that it’s over, then can get on to living in their own realm of legend. Of course, it could mean something entirely different; I’m only speaking for what I interpreted of the incident.
I’d always argue that a great many other science fiction films have probably lifted much inspiration from SOYLENT GREEN. Watching it closely, I believe I saw what influence the flick had on Ridley Scott’s seminal BLADE RUNNER. I immediately thought of the worlds created in films like GATTACA and even the substantive parts of Michael Bay’s THE ISLAND. LOGAN’S RUN was only three years away, but there were elements of strong thematic similarity there, as well, such as dealing with overpopulation and surviving beyond one’s immediate means. John Carpenters’ THEY LIVE! may’ve nodded back to costume and design elements – through the use of those special glasses, his streets showed people dressed in like fashion, and the streets of NYC here were flooded with legions of people wearing essential one or two color schemes. Heck, I thought I even picked up some modest hints at even Glen Larson’s largely passable BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY theatrical cut. Again, I could be completely off base here; I’m only representing my thoughts and impressions of the film, but I’ve no doubt hundreds if not thousands of filmmakers have looked back literally or figuratively at how to create some of artistic flourish of SOYLENT GREEN.
I could go on, though I suspect you get a sense that I’m trying to communicate how rich this picture from 1973 is. SOYLENT GREEN won the 1974 Nebula Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and was nominated for the same category in that year’s Hugo Awards (it lost to Woody Allen’s SLEEPER). In ’74, it also won the Grand Prize at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival, and, in 1975, it was awarded the Golden Scroll for the Best Science Fiction Film at the USA Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films. Needless to say – if you’re a sci-fi junkie like I am – this is one film worth its 97 minutes in gold.
While I could dispute the strength (or lack thereof) of the climax where a wounded Heston lies on a cot crying out the immortal words about just what Soylent Green is, I won’t. I’ll leave that for others to quarrel over if they must. For me, it’s fine just the way it is.
SOYLENT GREEN is produced by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM). DVD distribution appears to have been handled by Warner Video, a division of Warner Bros. As for the technical specs on this Blu-ray release from 2011, it looks and sounds fantastic with no loss of audio, only a few seconds of graininess, and some thoroughly dated special effects. As for the special features, the packaging indicates that Warner Bros. has included a commentary track by Fleisher and Taylor-Young, two vintage featurettes (one covering science fiction and one a tribute to Robinson), and the original theatrical trailer. All in all, it’s a nice collection for any fan or film aficionado.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. While some might find several elements of the production quite a bit dated, I was totally jazzed with SOYLENT GREEN from start to finish. That dystopian look – the bleak, desolate future brought on by overpopulation – works so well in so many science fiction productions, and director Fleischer works similar wonders with it here. Additionally, so much of our reality is predicated on our ability to experience the senses – sight, touch, smell, taste – and scribe Stanley R. Greenberg lifts the right elements from the Harry Harrison novel to put through the hoops here. Lastly, Heston and Robinson (his final screen appearance) earn high marks as old souls trying to live their lives to the fullest despite the barrenness of their world.
In the year 2022, the greenhouse effect has poisoned the Earth. The world is grossly overpopulated and there are practically no natural food sources left. Vendors in the street markets sell Soylent Red and Soylent yellow (made from soybeans), but the Government controls and hands out rations of Soylent Green on Tuesdays. Supposedly made from high-energy plankton, Soylent Green is often in short supply for the high demand. People stand in food lines all day waiting for water and processed foodstuffs. … more