Soylent Green Review: Charlton Heston's Eco-Sci-Fi Classic
Soylent Green is a nutritious, cinematic, experience more filling than expected and still fresh, when heavily spoiled. The 70's sci-fi classic still hold up in the age of GMO's.
Spoilers For Soylent Green
It’s a shame that we think we know all there is to know about Soylent Green. A film fallen victim to its own iconic line (Yes, yes, it’s people; Soylent Green is people), a modern audience's tendency might be to focus on the spoiler and conclude the film a stale, product of the 1970's. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Soylent Green is a deceptively layered picture, more robust than its pulpy science-fiction husk. Look closer, and there’s a political message that resonates today. At its core, Richard Fleischer's iconic sci-fi masterpiece is a profoundly humanist parable on how we treat others and take our world for granted.
You (probably) already know the climax, let’s take a look at the ingredients that make Soylent Green worth indulging:
Original Recipe serves 40,000,000 (the population of New York in 2022):
- 2 cups visual universe and world building built from scratch
- 1/2 cup cinematic spices and flourish
- 1/4 teaspoon social conscience
- 4 Pounds Humanity - leave soul intact, cut into large chunks
It’s 2022 in New York City; the population has exploded to 40 million. Overcrowding chokes every inch of the frame and we feel it viscerally. A brownish fog lays thick over Manhattan - it could be pollution, but it’s more likely the frothing, collective, stench from the huddled masses fighting for space.
Detective Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) and his mentor Sol (Edward G. Robinson) are tasked with investigating the murder of a prominent businessman and member of the 1% (with the population explosion, it's more like the 0.001% by now) William Simonson. Thorn, gleaming with sweat and grime, literally climbs over an ocean of loiterers to get in and out of his apartment. Director Richard Fleisher’s future is a sensory experience. Living in the city is more about surviving and everyone is your competition. He wants you to feel a film of pollution, the rank humidity of packed humanity. When a food shortage breaks out on Soylent Green Tuesday, riot scoops (a riot truck/garbage truck hybrid) mows down crowds of people indiscriminately. The message is clear: too many people are expendable.
It comes as no surprise that the rich have managed to maintain a relatively decent standard of living. The working class is left to feed on itself, while the top of the food chain is available to those with the resources to purchase such a position. A politician visits the last trees in Gramercy Park (housed in a small tent), but this is a special privilege. The corrupt detective Thorn revels in what he is able to extort in the name of the investigation. Much of the fun of the film comes from watching Thorn appreciate the little things we’ve come to take for granted. Soylent Green's future is so desperate. Circumstances have made air-conditioning, a hot shower, and an atari video game extravagant luxuries. A trip to the grocer is done with an armed guard, behind iron bars and bullet-proof glass. Women are commodified as “furniture.” These are the consequences of a nightmarish system run amok.
The perpetrators of Soylent Green’s dire situation are indicted by the film's prologue: a photo montage of hyper-economic development serves as a dark id to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. Human civilization metastasizes - in the name of progress - to arrive at this apocalyptic crossroads.
But even more important than the breakdown of environment are the consequences of what happens to people: the devaluation of human life, a structure of all out warfare against your fellow man for the most basic of Maslow’s resources; the utter deterioration of human decency and compassion.
As Thorn indulges in the lost, basic, universal pleasures of life (tasting sweet strawberry jam, the rush of holding a beautiful woman in your arms, turning the pages of a new book) he slowly reclaims a humanity he’s never experienced, yet one that feels so familiar - so indistinguishably human.
My favorite scenes is a dialogue-free sequence of Thorn and Sol indulging in a purloined meal, a real dinner that is NOT Soylent Green. The interplay between Sol, who relishes every bite of actual food again and Thorn who enthusiastically discovers the pleasure of eating, is one of those amazing scenes that smuggles in the message of gratitude within the trappings of a mainstream science-fiction film.
Sol shows Thorn the concept of raising a toast and presents him with actual silverware. Thorn, sullenly munching a leaf, doesn’t “get” what’s so good about lettuce - garnering a priceless reaction from Sol. “You don’t know what taste is, kid.” One can't help but get a little hungry with this kind of visual feast. A homemade pot of beef stew with a crisp gala apple on the side. We watch these two men wordlessly chew, cool, and savor... with only a final, satisfied, burp. The simple act of enjoying a true meal is one experienced by every generation... up to this point.
Edward G. Robinson is the real scene stealer as his old Sol is the last link to humanity in 2022. He nostalgically recollects a time where humanity wasn't overcrowded. The moment he sees a fresh cut of beef or the first time in a long time, the old man breaks; his eyes widen as he stifles his sobs: “How did we come to this?”
Thorn momentarily taken aback by his mentor’s regret and vulnerability, doesn’t know how to react... And that’s the power of Edward G. Robinson. One of Classic Hollywood’s greatest leading men, he was able to maintain his career into his older age by transitioning to a reliable character actor. Soylent Green would be his 101st and final film.
Sol is the one who discovers the terrible truth behind the murder of Simonson. The wealthy industrialist had been wrestling with his conscience when he realizes the discrepancy between the actual level of plankton and the Soylent Green substitute. Likewise, the revelation that human beings have resorted to cannibalism is too much for Sol. Humanity has crossed a line of final reproach.
Sol goes “Home,” a euphemism for an assisted suicide center which looks like a parochial urgent care center. Greeted by two attendants in religious robes, Sol is sedated and seated before a massive screen in a futuristic final rites.
An overture before his death begins: Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Grieg, and then... the world prior to its corruption by man. Glimpses of a time that was, but is no longer. Rushing streams, blossoming flowers, free roaming deer. In a film where luxury and food were so taken for granted, Sol sees what is really taken for granted - our world. Thorn is able to catch the final moments of this exhibition and Sol’s life. He is able to track Sol’s body to the Soylent Plant to discover the horrific secret for himself.
It might be apocryphal, but prior to the euthanasia scene, Robinson - an old friend of Heston’s since the 10 Commandments - confided that he was dying of cancer. Heston went into that scene blind-sided by this knowledge and delivered a performance worthy of his old friend. Robinson passed away twelve days after filming wrapped.
Soylent Green is Now?
Science fiction films have very many virtues: inspiring generations, innovating film technology as an art form, presaging the future, allowing us to reflect on our own humanity. At its very best, it combines all of these element. One doesn’t have to look farther for Soylent Green's roman a clef than the Monsantos, Bayer CorpSciences, and Syngenta Corporations to find companies that are very interested in their own financial gain at the expense of transparency.
Notably, the Monsanto Company leads the fight against mandatory food labeling and if you visit their website, they have a very slick campaign featuring blissful farmers that seem descended from Soviet-era agrarian propaganda (Lysenkoism). I'm a movie lover with little stake in Monsanto's success or failure - often times I'm uncomfortable with what I perceive as an anti-science/anti-progress message in science fiction or horror films i.e. "try to cure alzheimers equals UNLEASH singularity/genetically-modified superapes/spliced abominations" - but what has raised my ire is Monsanto's aggressive obfuscation of consumer transparency. The proof is in the obtuse, hair-splitting answers of content manager like Chelsey Robinson. Her responses are a lesson in a subtle, insidious kind of semantics.
This is “Milton” a registered dietitian/nutritionist/Monsanto spokesperson/cannibal (this is unverified) who has been cast as a human in Monsanto’s PR video. He says that the global population is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. Of course, he has a solution.
Milton and Chelsey put a sympathetic mask on the face of big agriculture; I'm sure they'll say that they care about your well being (the marbling of your fat for instance or the tenderness of your cuts) over profit. But remember, they are selling you. From the looks of their Public Relations campaigns, Monsanto has invested a lot to persuade the population that labels are not necessary and frequently punt the issue with the hacky political job: "leaving it to the Federal Government/States/community" argument. Let's be honest. Labels damage sales. Consumer education and outreach is viewed as a nuisance if it's an obstacle to the profit imperative. Proving the superiority of the product by results is not fast enough for corporate quarterlies. Despite the parallels between companies like Soylent and Monsanto, Soylent Green is ultimately not about a social agenda (overcrowding is the macguffin). It's really about losing our humanity with the compromises we make and not questioning those who pay our bills.
Spokespeople for big agriculture might see a little of themselves in William R. Simonson. Every day he went to work, compromised his values, entrenched himself when attacked (an all too human impulse), ignored the world deteriorating around him, and formulated daily complex justifications to disassociate himself from being the bad guy... until it took a shock to lead him to contrition. Each of these small concessions carried a high price: his humanity.
And that’s what is really at the heart of Soylent Green. The final regrets of a man on his death bed mourning the anesthetizing of humanity. Robert Fleischer really wants you to relish what it means to be human: The touch of sweltering heat and humidity clinging like smoke on your skin. The taste of trying fresh, simple food with a friend. The orchestrations of the greatest composers of all time. Soylent Green again and again wants to connect you with that universal feeling - that innate sense of community and responsibility we have to all humankind.
I’m afraid that some modern viewers will find Soylent Green a hokey relic of the past, but companies like Monsanto with the political power they yield prove that the message is timeless. Humanity is not expendable. Life is not to be taken for granted. Soylent Green is a great film because it's a parable showing us what life is truly about: it's people.
Soylent Green (1973)
- Director: Richard Fleischer
- Writer: Stanley R. Greenberg
- Starring: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Joseph Cotten, Leigh Taylor Young, Brock Peters, Chuck Connors
- Producer: Walter Seltzer, Russell Thacher
- Music by: Fred Myrow
- Cinematography by: Richard H. Kline