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Film ● Review: Soylent Green

Title: Soylent Green

Director(s): Richard Fleischer

Screenwriter(s): Stanley R. Greenberg

Studio: MGM Released: 1973

Runtime: 1h 36m

Starring: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors, Brock Peters

● The film opens up to a montage of industry, pollution and even some people wearing masks; in other words, the “humans are ruining the planet” theme. This type of dystopian premise and setting are not new, even at the time. Nonetheless, some particulars are interesting and relevant to the present.

Soylent Green

● The film is set in the year 2022 in New York City (but it could be just about any large city). Aside from the climate problem of constant high temperatures, there is also overpopulation and the lack of food and water. (In this film, these problems are real.)

● Soylent wafers of various colors and Soylent buns are available, an obvious reference to using food as a weapon for control and our over-reliance on processed foods. Soylent Green, made of plankton, is advertised as a special on Tuesdays.

● The masses need to line up for Soylent and water. Many don’t have a place to live and therefore resort to sleeping on the stairs of old apartment buildings or at the local church that gets no help for its charity work. Also, presumably due to pollution, some people wear masks, and some don’t even do so properly.

● Soylent needs to be paid for but people can line up for government “benefits” at the local police station. They have the option of receiving cash or a relatively higher amount in food coupons.

● Real food (such as fresh vegetables and beef), running hot water, soap, alcohol, air conditioning in secure apartments are luxuries limited to the rich and elite.

● The story follows Detective Thorn (Heston). He lives with his friend Sol Roth (Robinson), a fellow investigator who acts as an analyst of sorts. He is an old man who used to be a college professor and remembers the world when it was better. One day, a rich man named William R. Simonson is assassinated in his own apartment for being “unreliable”. His bodyguard Tab Fielding (Connors) and housekeeper-mistress Shirl (Taylor-Young)—the latter are generally referred to as “furniture”—are conveniently not in the apartment when it happens.

● Thorn immediately suspects that it is an assassination, the film follows his investigation and journey to the truth.

● It is revealed that Simonson is connected to New York Governor Santini. It could just be stereotyping since there are many Italians in New York, but it is funny how a corrupt governor of Italian heritage is involved.

● Simonson was director of a company that did commercial freeze-drying for food. Soylent then acquired the company in 2018 and “controls the food supply for half the world”. Simonson sat on the board of Soylent.

● Police Detective Chief Hatcher (Peters) is eventually pressured to shut down Thorn’s investigation.

● Due to the lack of resources (or so it is said), books aren’t even printed anymore and although there is television, there is nothing that resembles the internet. Thus, information is hard to come by and Sol complains that only old and possibly outdated information is available. [Potential Spoiler] Thorn does come across the Soylent Oceanic Survey Report 2015 to 2019 and Sol, along with a group of old intellectuals and academics, later find that the oceans are dying and deduce that Soylent Green cannot be made of plankton. No prizes for guessing what Soylent Green is made of.

● In addition to the lack of food in general, at one point the supply of Soylent Green is low due to a lack of transport. These spark riots and the classic scene in which police use “scoops” to get rid of rioters. It is unclear whether those scooped into trucks are actually killed.

● For the old and/or sick, they can choose to “go home” at the euthanasia center. No expense is spared there at making sure the place is nice and clean. Of course, the whole procedure feigns spirituality and ritual without actually having any substance.

● In another coincidence, both Peters and Taylor-Young guest star in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (in separate episodes and not in the following). In the double-episode “Past Tense” (season 3, episodes 11 and 12), Sisko, Bashir and Dax are thrown back in time to a pre-Federation period when Earth had “sanctuary cities” due to socio-economic problems. Although limited to zones, the appearance and conditions are similar to the world depicted in Soylent Green.

● Whilst the premise reads like detective-noir and indeed the narrative includes elements thereof, it does not quite follow that style visually. The world is gritty, the heat and humidity convincingly conveyed throughout. There are a few shots where there is the effective use of color saturation. And there are a few split-diopter shots, something that is rarely used even today. On balance, however, it visually lacks style.

● The main weakness of the story is the relationship between Thorn and Shirl. Thorn doesn’t exactly treat Shirl with much respect even though he is relatively better than most. Either way, it is difficult to understand that relationship.

● Despite the above, the plot is straightforward and the (social) commentary quite telling. It is difficult to discern whether it is merely predictive programming or an honest discussion, although the two don’t necessarily exclude each other. I personally lean towards the former. At 1 hour 36 minutes, the structure is tight with every scene serving the purpose of moving the plot along or as exposition. There are a few scenes that drag a little by today’s standards, but that was somewhat the norm back then. One can see how it has become a modern classic.


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