Soylent Green (1973)


Soylent Green is one of those movies that I hate reviewing for two conflicting reasons. One, EVERYONE knows of the big plot point that has become such a part of pop culture, and the subject of numerous gags and references in other films, over the years. Two, I still resolutely do my best to review movies without spoiling anything, despite how redundant that may seem in cases like this. You see, I like to live in a bubble of optimism sometimes. I think of someone discovering many movies for the first time. Movies like Planet Of The Apes, The Sixth Sense, The Crying Game, etc. And this one. Can you imagine their reaction to these movies if they have somehow managed to see them before knowing all about them? Don’t tell me that you wouldn’t be just the slightest bit envious.

The translation for that opening paragraph? Cut me some slack if you’re ever reading a review that I’ve written for a well-known movie and you think I’m dancing about any major plot points. I usually am, but with good reason.

Based on a novel by the great Harry Harrison, adapted into screenplay form by Stanley R. Greenberg, and directed by Richard Fleischer, Soylent Green is a classic of dystopian sci-fi. Despite the fact that I don’t love it quite as much as some people, I still like it a hell of a lot. It’s just a shame that, to me, it seems to have lost much of its power over the years. Which may, or may not, be connected to that move into pop culture.

Charlton Heston stars as Detective Thorn, a man always trying to make life better for himself and his good friend, Sol (Edward G. Robinson in his last screen role). That’s no easy feat when the world is in such disarray. Homeless people crowd the streets, many natural resources have been exhausted and the general population all try to live off food rations, provided by the Soylent Corporation. Their newest addition to the food range, Soylent Green, is supposedly better than previous offerings, but is in short supply. As tempers fray among the masses, the crumbling society constantly seems just one step away from an uprising, Detective Thorn also ends up investigating the death of a director of the Soylent Corporation (William R. Simonson, played by Joseph Cotten) and putting himself in danger as he stumbles upon a shocking discovery.

The acting on display here is all pretty solid. Heston is always good in this kind of teeth-gritting, reluctant hero role, Edward G. Robinson is great and gets to end his career with a truly memorable, and wonderful, scene, Joseph Cotten may not be onscreen for long, but he does well, and there’s also the lovely Leigh Taylor-Young as Shirl and Chuck Connors as Tab Fielding, holding his own against Heston in the scenes that show his character being put under scrutiny for any part he may have played in the death of Simonson (Fielding was Simonson’s bodyguard, but he also seems to have a few too many luxuries in his home). Brock Peters does well with his limited screentime, portraying Chief Hatcher, the standard commanding officer who has to play some political games but also tries to do his best by his best men, and Paula Kelly is wonderful to watch as Martha, Tab’s girlfriend.

Greenberg’s script gets everything just about right. The situation is sketched out, the plot is developed nicely and everything builds up to a grand finale. The only weak spot is the lack of sympathy that viewers may feel for Thorn. I know that I never warmed to him, at least not until the last 15 -20 minutes. Not every film character has to be sympathetic, of course, but there’s something a bit too offputting in the way that Thorn treats many of the people around him. It’s not that Thorn hates the way the world has gone to hell around him, he seems to hate that he isn’t with the haves and spends his days with the have nots.

The direction by Fleischer is fine. There are enough shots here and there to give an idea of the big picture, but things are then kept fairly small scale and focus more and more on the personal relationships between the main characters while the overall state of society adds its own strain and causes problems for each of them in different ways.

If you’re a fan of sci-fi then this is a movie that you pretty much MUST check off your “to see” list. It’s not a perfect film, but it does have enough in almost every scene to easily maintain its reputation as a minor classic.

Soylent Green was shown on Sun 30 June at The Filmhouse as part of a Richard Fleischer retrospective at EIFF 2013


Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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