Although the film’s storytelling is a bit on the turgid side, despite lantern-jawed leading man Charlton Heston adding his usual animalistic fervor, Soylent Green is among the most memorable of the myriad downbeat sci-fi dramas that proliferated during the ’70s. Much of the credit goes to the movie’s wild twist ending (rest assured, no spoilers here), but there’s more to the picture than its famous final moments: Soylent Green presents a grim view of a future Earth suffocated by overpopulation. In New York City, where the film is set, every square inch of available space is filled with desperate, hungry vagrants, so anyone with property is a target. Amid this deadly environment, tough-talking cop Robert Thorn (Heston) tries to keep order by bringing murderers to justice, although he’s not exactly noble.
For instance, when Thorn struts around the apartment of a murder victim at the beginning of the picture, he helps himself to choice possessions even as he’s snooping for clues. Like everyone else in this bleak future, Thorn subsists mostly on Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow, tiny nutrient tablets made by the Soylent Corporation. However, these products are so bland that when the company introduces the more flavorful Soylent Green, riots erupt among New Yorkers who crave the delicacy. At first, Thorn doesn’t make the connection between Soylent Green and his investigation into the death of a Soylent executive, but Thorn’s senior-citizen friend, Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), detects a conspiracy. Sol spends his days poring over old books and records to find valuable information for Thorn, but Sol also realizes that he’s dead weight in an overcrowded city. Then, when Sol volunteers for government-sanctioned assisted suicide, Thorn tumbles into an existential crisis that leads him toward the shocking discovery at the center of the film’s ending.
Adapted from a novel by Harry Harrison and directed with slick efficiency by Richard Fleischer, Soylent Green is longer on atmosphere than it is on action, since it falls somewhere between cerebral sci-fi and visceral sci-fi. Nonetheless, much of the picture is arresting, with Heston swaggering through his scenes while key supporting players add interesting textures. The beautiful Leigh Taylor-Young appears as a consort—referred to in future parlance as “furniture”—and the way she trades her body for survival accentuates the film’s theme about the cheapness of life in a mechanized world. Studio-era survivor Robinson, in his last screen role, lends a campy mix of pathos and whimsy, and his connection to an earlier time in cinema history helps tether this fantastical story to familiar reality. Thanks to all of these strengths, Soylent Green is hard to shake, even though it’s not by any means a great movie.
Soylent Green: GROOVY