Review: Soylent Green

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Richard Fleischer’s new film is a science-fiction-horror-mystery. The horrors are ecological: pollution, overpopulation, welfare as a national way of life, objectification of human beings. The mystery is the murder of Simonson (Joseph Cotten), head of the Soylent Corporation (from “soy” and “lentil”), producer of the world’s food supply: wafers that come in red, yellow and green. Charlton Heston is Thorn, police detective assigned to investigate the murder. Technically and dramatically much weaker than most slick science-fiction films, Soylent Green is still more realistic on one terrifying point: the ecology will deteriorate, through misuse and overuse of plant and animal life as well as overpopulation, much sooner than human technology and architecture will advance to accommodate it and create the oppressive-but-neat world of domes, interplanetary travel and multi-leveled cities that characterize most movies of the s.f. genre. The world of Soylent Green is a fetid, overcrowded, overheated mass of sweaty bodies, clothed in rags, living in abandoned cars and tenement stairwells, shuffled about by steam shovels when they become uncontrollable. Only the rich and those employed or owned by the rich have room to live in comfort, real food to eat, clean clothing and running water.

The vision is a terrifyingly logical extension of present economic and ecological trends. For the desperate masses there is a place to go when merely existing becomes unbearable: “Home.” Going Home is the process of voluntary death, carried out in slick suicide parlors to which people flock like children to a Saturday matinee, and from which they’re hauled away by the truckload to Waste Disposal Plants. Edward G. Robinson, in his last film, plays Sol Roth, an aging intellectual who, in 2022, still remembers the earthly delights of the mid-20th century. He is the easiest character to identify with, and the most sympathetic, because he is a child of our own age: he represents us fifty years from now. Sol is a “Book,” performing the necessary duties of research for the detective, who can merely read and write, not analyze information in the manner of an educated man. Sol’s research reveals that there is much more to the Simonson case than the circumstances of a murder; he opts for the suicide parlor. Thorn shakes himself free of the confusing vortex of violence and corruption, involving a Bodyguard (Chuck Connors), an Investigator (Brock Peters), and a piece of Simonson’s “Furniture” (women who are literally part of the house of a rich man, exchanging their favors for the comforts of wealth; in this particular instance, played by Leigh Taylor-Young), and pursues Sol to the suicide theater where he learns a horrible secret. The scene in which Sol “Goes Home” begins well, but like most other ideas in the film it is carried too far, lasts too long, attempts to do too much, loses all subtlety and delicacy. Still, it will survive as one of the movie’s most memorable moments if only because of the sympathy evoked by Robinson, and the proximity of the scene to the time of his actual death.

The most outstanding sequence of the film, however, is the main title montage. Edited to an ever-increasing tempo, it depicts, through still photographs and moving pictures, the deteriorating ecology from an almost idyllic turn-of-the-century America, through our own century, to the overcrowded, polluted, dying earth of 2022. The optical effects are stunning, moving from gentle fades and dissolves to brutal wipes, abrupt cuts, and finally the appearance of the photographic images being rapidly piled on top of one another. Like this sequence, and like self-destructive 20th-century life itself, Soylent Green is often intolerably excessive, but never dull.

SOYLENT GREEN
Direction: Richard Fleischer. Screenplay: Stanley R. Greenberg, based on the novel Make Room! by Harry Harrison. Cinematography: Richard H. Kline. Editing: Samuel E. Beetley. Technical Consultant: Prof. Frank R. Bowerman, American Academy of Environmental Engineers. Music: Fred Myrow. Production: Walter Seltzer, Russell Thacher.
The Players: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors, Joseph Cotten, Brock Peters, Paula Kelly, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Whit Bissell.

Copyright © 1973 Robert C. Cumbow


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