Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973)

by Douglas Buck November 7, 2019 5 minutes (1146 words) HD Cinema du Parc, Festival of Nouveau Cinema/’Films for the Planet’ section

New York Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston), lucky enough to even have a job in a overpopulated city of forty million struggling with mass unemployment, choking pollution, oppressive heat and depleted resources as a direct result of climate disaster (gee, who would a thought… ?), shares a cramped tenement with his aging partner Sol (Edward G. Robinson, with the legendary actor just a year away from stepping through death’s door) ends up investigating the murder of a CEO of the massive corporation Soylent Industries, only to quickly realize it wasn’t just a simple burglary gone wrong, that whoever managed to somehow get through the elaborate security of the skyscraper fortresses of the uber-wealthy was clearly carrying out an assassination… which will end implicating some folks dangerously high up the food chain that Thorn shouldn’t have anything to do with.

So fascinating to watch a film that seems right now to so uncomfortably be speaking of a bleak dystopian future in our sightlines (heck, I have to wonder if the cackling hyenas are that mindless that they would even laugh at this vision… likely, I’d say… thankfully I was at a film festival, where a simple sharp ‘shush’ manages to quiet the few chatterers), that was met with almost unanimous derision by mainstream critics upon its release (while at almost precisely the same time, we now know, the oil conglomerate ExxonMobil was suppressing their own exhaustive in-house report that painted a very bleak picture of a hostile, ungovernable planet if we continued our reliance on their fossil fuels).

Charlton Heston and E.G. Robinson

The dehumanized world created in the film, in which we watch Heston’s Thorn each morning step methodically over the masses of sleeping and starving homeless passed out en masse on the sidewalks and the stoops along the city blocks (with the occasional uprisings from the desperate hordes met by having large dumpster trucks literally scooping them off the street and slamming them down into their cabs, as masked mob control police beat them back, or are beaten themselves) is profoundly captured, in appropriate sweaty and claustrophobic style, by Hollywood director Richard Fleischer, a sadly underrated journeyman style director, of many a worthy genre effort (and I mean many – including lots of memorable 50’s noir entries, a couple of Bronson classics in the 70’s, a few Schwarzenegger “Conan” entries in the 80’s and lots more), with Soylent Green perhaps being his one true masterpiece (though you could argue that the wildly colorful film in which he shrunk Raquel Welch, dropped her in a human body and almost had her eaten by an antibody, Fantastic Voyage, is up there as well).

“Soylent” was the last of the unforgettable, vaguely psychedelic, trifecta of bleak end-of-the-world films Heston was staking a claim to in the socially tumultuous period of the 70’s (well, Planet of the Apes was 1968, but Nixon’s ramping up of the Vietnam War was already started and Malcom X and Martin Luther King had already been helped along to meet their makers by the bullets of their assassins). Don’t let the fact that Heston would eventually become vilified for his leading NRA spokesman role by Michael Moore obscure the fact that Heston was a towering, impressive cinematic figure… and perfect for these films. True to many an actor from that time (and before, but not as often afterwards), Heston was unafraid to suppress ego in the service of what was required to best service the character and story. Watching him looking around the rich man’s apartment of the murdered man, feeling nothing about the murder, mostly trying to figure out what precious items he can (illegally) take with him (such as alcohol, which has become the province of only the elites), intimidating everyone around him in order to get his way, fits perfectly within the callous world we’re baring witness to.

The beautiful ‘kept’ women who come as part of the rich men’s apartments (with their roles openly referred to as them being ‘furniture’), with the one in the assassinated CEO’s place, Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), eventually becoming romantically entangled with Thorn, even as she has to stay on for the next rich male tenant to see if he wants her or not, shows further the state of the future world (reminding me, don’t be surprised, faux liberals, when we’re back in the dark ages of the climate change-ravaged, ungovernable planet predicted in our lifetimes and they’re pulling people from those gender neutral bathrooms – the very ones you spent all your establishment-enabling, society dividing identity politic-driven time on fighting for — and stoning them to death).

With the actor apparently barely able to hear and struggling physically, Edward G. Robinson still manages to deliver a performance of grace and integrity, with a character who still remembers the natural beauty that once proliferated on the planet (he’s like Bruce Dern’s Freeman Lowell idealist from Silent Running, only with hope whittled away, left only with memories) and now only wishes to die. As with the two other films I’ve seen so far in this FNC section of ‘Films for the Planet’ (that being Wind Across the Everglades and Silent Running), the constant lingering shots of nature (in the case of “Soylent”, however, only through video images, played for the dying and the sick; people who have paid for assisted suicide, as most of nature is gone, destroyed), reveal a deep melancholic sense of longing; it’s particularly resonant, in all three films.

Robinson’s performance is made all the more powerful by the fact that it was the legendary actor’s final role… what a way to end a historic 50 plus year Hollywood career (too bad the film was met with such derision upon its initial release) as he is afforded a profoundly poignant culminating moment.

Soylent Green may be mostly remembered (for those who do remember it) for its closing reveal, given as one of the more well-remembered lines of dialogue coming out of the 1970’s, from Heston’s Thorn, carted away with blood on his raised hand. It centers around the exact ingredients for the titular Soylent Green, a new ‘food product’ wafer manufactured by Soylent Industries (the ominous company that owns most of the world’s food supply) and distributed – along with Soylent’s Red and Yellow – in amounts just large enough to keep the population just above starving (kinda similar to the deliberate – and very real — food distribution plan Israel follows in regards to the Palestinians of Gaza, as a way to both effectively control them… and slowly starve them to death), but it’s so much more. It’s a brilliantly realized creation of a (now far too imaginable) callous, brutal and desperate dystopian future that, man, those (Hollywood studio, no less) socially conscious films were really nailing in the 70’s.

Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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