Soylent Green (1973) — 50 years of carnivorous delights

soylant green

“People were always rotten. But the world was beautiful.”

Chad’s rating: A daily dose of protein with no artificial sweeteners or preservatives.

Chad’s review: As of 2023, the sci-fi classic Soylent Green can now be considered a “future past” movie. Thanks to its 2022 setting, it now joins the ranks of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Terminator 2 (Judgment Day was 1997), Escape from New York (also 1997), The Running Man (2017), and more recently, Blade Runner (2019) as film settings past their expiration date.

In fact, it’s fun to see how the filmmakers got it so wrong (or sometimes right) in their dark and downright dystopian visions of the future. Per Blade Runner, we still don’t have flying cars or human-looking androids. Last I checked, New York City isn’t a high-security prison but one of the largest tourist traps in the country. The one exception is The Running Man, a film full of prescient themes on how social media and reality TV can negatively warp society.

Splitting the difference is the 1973 science fiction thriller Soylent Green with its dire snapshot of an overpopulated and climate-ravaged Earth. The movie doesn’t give us an exact number, but it does let us know that 2022 New York now has 40 million residents. Yes, we’re nowhere close to that number, but as of November last year, the planet passed the eight billion population mark. So many of the predictions made in Soylent Green may not have come to pass but are merely delayed.

Directed by Charles Fleischer (of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Red Sonja fame), the plot follows Detective Thorn investigating the death of a wealthy board member of Soylent Industries. The all-powerful Soylent corporation provides nourishment and food to the heavily polluted and overcrowded planet using plankton from the ocean floors. And they have three tasty flavors to choose from: red, yellow, and (the most popular) green.

Soon Thorn and his bookish partner Sol Roth uncover clues that point to the board member’s killing as an assassination instead of a routine burglary. When several powerful politicians pressure the police to end the investigation, Thorn and Sol uncover a vast conspiracy manufactured by Soylent Industries. It seems the ingredients to the corporations’ popular foods aren’t so wholesome and nutritious after all… particularly Soylent Green.

I have to say that much of Soylent Green has aged remarkably well during the last 50 years. At times the movie plays like a classic film noir, with a compelling mystery to keep you hooked even if you know the finale’s big twist. The production design has a minimalist quality, with the drab, grey clothing evoking communist-era Russia during the cold war. It’s a gritty aesthetic compared to the other big 1970s scifi actioner Logan’s Run with its disco gloss and tacky, shopping mall-bound sets.

Soylent Green is confidently carried by Charlton Heston, one of the last great action stars of the old Hollywood studio system. Heston was the rare actor who not only embraced the science fiction genre but gave big muscular performances that he didn’t reserve for his more “respectable” films (like Touch of Evil). And his characters were flawed and complex, like the nihilistic cynic in Planet of the Apes or his greedy and opportunistic detective in this film. When Heston’s Thorn begins his investigation, CSI-style, in a wealthy penthouse, he raids the place and collects a stash of rare items to sell on the black market.

This was also the final screen appearance of legendary character actor Edward G. Robinson. If you’re unaware of this man’s talent, check out Double Indemnity or Key Largo immediately. Thankfully, he crafts a solid and engaging performance for his swan song as the bookish Sol Roth, playing the brains to Heston’s muscle. And his final moments inside the Soylent Corporation, staring at screens of forests, rivers, and beautiful landscapes he’s never seen, is heartbreaking and takes on a deeper meaning. Reportedly, Robinson was in great pain with his bladder cancer during filming and died mere days after his scenes were completed.

Yes, the movie has its share of silly cheese with some downright goofy moments. The women characters are referred to as literal “furniture” that comes with the apartment to service the wealthy clientele. And Heston never wastes any time to strip down and get sexy with the ladies, bedding the “furniture” immediately. I mean, Heston has an impressive hunky frame, but his Detective Thorn is despicably horny here. Finally, the film’s tight budget is apparent, failing to create a visual atmosphere of a dying planet. All we get are green-hazed frames and some obvious matte paintings.

Soylent Green is an underrated scifi gem that’s unfairly compared to Heston’s more popular Planet of the Apes. Both have twist endings with iconic final lines, but Apes managed to pierce the pop culture landscape. Yet Soylent Green has some solid and fascinating ideas despite its “future past” status. As such, just switch gears and watch it as a frightening alternative history.

Heather’s rating: Mmmmm…..*chomp* *smack*……what?

Heather’s review: Futurama’s food of choice is a huge part of pop culture; even if a person has never seen this film before, the grisly truth behind Soylent Green’s true contents is well-known. The movie and its “secret” are referenced numerous times in media, used by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xenogears, Left 4 Dead 2, The Simpsons and by  singer/songwriter Jonathon Coulton. The most famous example is when the late Phil Hartman melodramatically cried out “Soylent Green is made out of people! It’s peeoopllleeeee!” in an SNL skit, cementing the phrase into America’s lexicon.

All of that goes to say that this review of a nearly forty-year-old movie makes no apologies for the spoilers.

Soylent Green (Soylent being a mashing together of “soya” and “lentil”) is based on a 1966 novel by Harry Harrison titled Make Room! Make Room! The film takes liberties with the plot, most notably with the introduction of cannibalism as a solution to the food shortage. Still, the movie gets the book’s message across: Protect our environment and its resources.

Picture it: New York, 2022, population 40 million. The world is a lovely shade of brownish-olive, people eat square-shaped pieces of chemically processed food and they’re thankful for what they have! That is until Soylent Green, the newest and most palatable energy-filled foodstuff, comes along. It’s so much better than Soylent Red or Yellow. Why, it’s gathered from the oceans of the world! It’s plankton and stuff! Sadly, amidst all this utopian living lies a dark and dreary secret.

The movie starts us off with a murder almost immediately. I tell ‘ya, there’s nothing like a meat hook to the back of someone’s head to pull me in to the story. Our hero, Detective Ty Thorn (Heston), is called in to investigate and finds himself in one of New York’s most high-class living spaces. It turns out the decadent apartment, complete with real food like apples and beef and a live-in “furniture” girl, belonged to a high-ranking member of the Soylent Company board. From the moment he steps in (and helps himself to the dead guy’s goods) Thorn suspects this was an assassination rather than a burglary, as everyone around him would have him to believe. Eventually his hunches lead him and his best friend and mentor Sol, one of the few humans alive that remembers life before the world went from bad to worse, to a horrifying conclusion about the Soylent corporation’s ideas about nutrition.

I’ve read other reviews saying that the movie didn’t age well.  I wholeheartedly agree, just not with the way every else means it.  As far as the visuals go there is very little that didn’t age well.  This movie doesn’t fall into that trap of trying too hard to visualize a bunch of ridiculous technologies, like homes where your kitchen makes dinner for you, or flying cars making margaritas (not that those things don’t sound great).  The only vehicles about are a few very normal-looking garbage trucks, and the housing doesn’t look much different from something you would find in Los Angeles. For the most part the outfits are pretty normal.  No PVC, no winged shoulder pads, and not a toga in sight. There’s the usual ’70s rich-people-wear-pastel-sitting-on-bulbous-white-furniture, but otherwise the world SG creates is something we in 2010 can easily imagine.

No, it’s not the visuals that bother me. What bothers me about this and other movies in the seventies is the horribly sluggish way the story moves along. Most of the time I watch movies from that decade and feel like I could have skipped through the first 3/4 of it and been just fine.  It doesn’t help that, as much good talent as there was in this film, that darned old seventies-itis strikes again and makes nearly everyone talk and interact with each other as if they’re in a drug-induced stupor. I’m trying so hard not to make a seventies drug use joke here.

Soylent Green isn’t a great movie, but it’s a sci-fi classic with an important message to send, which it pulls off in a way that doesn’t make you feel as if you were just forced to sit through an educational film at school.  With 12 years left ’til the time in which the movie was set, we’re definitely nowhere near the problems that it portrays. Still, with an ever-growing population’s demand for fast, cheap food we’re living in a time where one has to travel to special stores and pay grossly high prices to buy food that isn’t chemically processed in some way. It makes one think.

Didja notice?

  • Charles is easily one of the stupidest-looking characters I’ve seen in a movie.
  • The inviting friendliness of the door girl for the assisted suicide clinic was just creepy. Brr.
  • According to the director’s commentary, Eddie’s wife, who was at the set every day during lunch to check on her extremely ill husband, declined to watch him filming his death scene.
  • NON-CANNIBALISM-RELATED SPOILERS!  Charlton Heston’s tears during the scene where Sol “goes home” were real. Eddie had confided in Charles the severity of his condition shortly the scene was filmed. END NON-CANNIBALISM-RELATED SPOILERS!
  • Every good sci-fi movie needs at least one railing kill!
  • This was the last film to be made on the back lot of MGM studios.
  • This was Edward G. Robinson’s last film (his 101st, actually).  He died of cancer 12 days after it was finished.
  • Mr. Robinson almost entirely deaf by the time of the movie’s shooting. He had to memorize his and everyone else’s lines, as well as the timing, perfect to get it right.
  • The first time we see Shirl (the “furniture”) she’s playing a video game. I like her.

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