DVD Review Of Soylent Green
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/13/07
In terms of the arts, the 1970s were a very turbulent era. In literature and the visual arts, it was the closing of a great fifty or sixty year period of creativity that has yet to be restarted. In music it was a decade that many see as a low point, due to corporate rock and disco. On television it was a Golden Age for situation comedies, from The Odd Couple to the Mary Tyler Moore Show to M*A*S*H to All In The Family, but in film it was even a greater period of creativity, in all genres, that saw the rise of the American auteur- directors like Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese- from the ashes of the old studio systems that had dominated Hollywood for over half a century. These directors wanted to craft literate, arts films for the masses, of the sort that had been staples in Europe since the end of the Second World War. Yet, the studios were trying to keep pace, with socially aware films of the sort not seen since the 1930s.
But, unlike the films of the 1930s, starring actors like Jimmy Cagney and John Garfield (usually co-starring the Dead End Kids), that dealt with social issues in a gritty realistic way, or as realistic as one could get on a sound stage, the social consciousness of the late 1960s and early 1970s manifested itself most in science fiction films, which allowed the Left Wing of Hollywood to preach to the masses under the guise of what most considered little above comic strip entertainment. There was precedent for this approach, for several of the flying saucer films of the 1950s dealt with the political zeitgeist of the McCarthy era- most notably The Day The Earth Stood Still and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. And the early 1960s saw Rod Serling constantly subverting the political conservatism of the time by casting social issues into science fiction settings on his classic sci fi television anthology show The Twilight Zone. Among the studio offerings of this time were the ecologically sensitive Silent Running; George Lucas’s first film THX 1138, which dealt with consumerism, group think, and existentialism; and Logan’s Run, which hammered away at Communism and state control versus the rights of an individual.
But, none of those films made a great impact at the box office, and it wasn’t until more sci fi kiddy fare, later in the decade, like Lucas’s Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, that science fiction was started to be taken seriously by the studio bean counters. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey never quite fit into any of these niches, though, but it was not the only exception to the rule of sci fi in the Flower Power era. There was a series of influential science fiction films starring Charlton Heston that dominated the box office of the time, starting with 1968’s Planet Of The Apes (and his brief appearance in its 1970 sequel Beneath The Planet Of The Apes), continuing with 1971’s The Omega Man (a remake of the Vincent Price classic The Last Man On Earth, both inspired by Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend), and culminating with 1973’s Soylent Green.
In each of these three films Heston, who cut his teeth on the Biblical epics of the 1950s. portrayed a misanthropic loner living in a dystopian society. Each one was, in a sense, worse than the last. In the Apes films mankind had shot itself in the foot, degenerated to mute illiteracy, and allowed apes to become the dominant sentient species on the planet. In The Omega Man, mankind had immolated itself via biological warfare, and was mutating into vampiric creatures. In Soylent Green, men were still firmly in command, but Thomas Malthus had been proved right, and as the population soared out of control, and the environment collapsed, the rest of the species had unwittingly been turned into cannibals by a soulless hegemony called the Soylent corporation.
Each of these films had many cons- from the far too stylized fashions and slogans of the era to the questionable acting skills of many of the supporting players, but they had also shown prescience in many areas, as well as a subversiveness that the studio heads either did not recognize, or did, and saw it did not sell too well, and stopped making such films. In the Apes series, five films in all, the allegory to race relations in America was manifest. In The Omega Man, the concerns of chemical and biological warfare were all too real to a nation that saw the horror of napalmed hamlets, courtesy of the American military. And, in Soylent Green the nascent environmental movement got a great slogan, ‘Soylent Green is people!’ But, the film also touched on other points that would prove prescient, such as global warming. In the film, set in 2022, every day is a hellish humid environment of over 90º Fahrenheit, for there are few plants left to help regulate the planet’s delicate biosphere. The society’s portrayal of sexuality and casual race mixing also seems prescient, but there are noticeable flaws, beyond merely the endemic fashion disasters. Most glaringly, the Malthusian doomsday scenario is not now, nor going to be anywhere near the levels the film portrays, and neither will the rise in global temperatures be likely to spike, in the next sixteen years. Also, the film’s lack of predictive ability is glaring with the lack of personal computers, cell phones, and even books- much less the Internet, although it does portray a cordless telephone that policemen like Heston, who plays Detective Robert Thorn, can use from a box.
Director Richard Fleischer, who was a good studio director (all work, no vision), and son of cartoon legend Max Fleischer, proudly trumpets the cordless phone and other predictive bulls-eyes in his commentary with the film’s female co-star Leigh Taylor-Young, who played Shirl. Overall, it’s a fairly good commentary, not too heavy on the abysmal critical fellatio that is the norm. Young, although she speaks for less than ten percent of the film, chimes in with some good points about how her chaotic personal life at the time was instrumental in her making her performance better, but the other features are the better end of the deal, most notably a contemporaneous promotional featurette about the film, and a tribute to Edward G. Robinson, who died shortly after the film was done. It was his 101st and last film.
Robinson starred as Heston’s roommate Sol Roth, a retired professor, who finds out the secret of Soylent Green, the new type of small flavorless squares of nutrients that all are forced to consume, first and thinks it so horrible that he chooses to be euthanized to classical music strains, as images of a beautiful, natural earth, with babbling brooks, singing birds, and fawns, fills his death room. He had been helping Thorn investigate the murder of a Soylent executive named William Simonson (Joseph Cotton, also in his last film role), who seems to have been the first person willing to blow the whistle on the company. Simonson was murdered by his bodyguard, Tab Fielding (Chuck Connors), on orders from the Soylent corporate heads. In the course of his investigating the murder, Thorn becomes involved with Simonson’s live-in sex partner Shirl. In another of the film’s missed predictions, women have somehow been reduced to the role of ‘furniture’. If a man rents a room and if the roommate is female, he has the right to sexually own her. In a perverse blow for racial equality, though, it turns out that Fielding’s piece of furniture is a sexy black woman named Martha. The film does a very seamless job of melting then-current racial issues away. It’s merely incidental, for example, that Martha is Fielding’s lover, or that Thorn’s boss, the less than sterling Chief of Police named Hatcher, is portrayed by a black actor, Brock Peters (To Kill A Mockingbird). But the film and actors are less successful with their actual characterizations than with their deployment as social commentary.
Yes, there are a few moments of levity, such as when Thorn cannot fix Hatcher’s incessantly crappy watch, but all the other actors are saddled with stock characters: Young and Kelly are merely eye candy, Connors is an off the rack bad guy, and Cotten’s performance is far too brief. Fortunately, though, the film is dominated by Heston’s towering presence. Few actors have ever dominated scenes they were in like Heston does in his films, and Soylent Green is no exception. But Robinson, frail and ailing, provides a nice counterbalance, and their relationship, as roommates is quite believable. Thorn is a definite misanthrope, and a corrupted cop, to boot, but he is putty in the hands of the ever optimistic Roth. There is a scene of the two men eating the most meager of fresh foods- celery, two apples, and a pound of steak, that is laced with the joy of living, for Thorn has lived his life on Soylent, but Roth recalls the flavors of this booty from his earliest childhood memories. The scenes are mostly wordless, but the two actors really emote powerfully with just their faces.
Some of the film’s references are quite heavyhanded- and reek of the then current Arab oil crisis and rampant inflation. A few jarred strawberries cost $150, and Soylent rations its assorted colored foods- Soylent Yellow, Soylent Red, and the new Soylent Green, reputedly made from ‘the finest undersea growth,’ in a manner not unlike the gas rationing of the time. Scenes of food riots are eerie echoes of the oil riots at many gas stations during the year of the film’s release, and the scenes of crowding, and bodies, live and dead, lying all about are still chilling, as well as influential. A later film like Escape From New York is an obvious progeny. The rest of the script, by Stanley R. Greenberg, however, is rather pedestrian, and fairly standard for a dystopian flick, but Fleischer and cinematographer Richard H. Kline do a great job of filling the screen with interesting images and sounds, to spice things up. The use of soft, dimly lit visuals, murkily filtered, add a Stygian feel to the New York of the film, almost like a colorized version of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr. The only light in the film comes from artificial sources, and were it not for the fashion faux pas the film could truly seem timeless.
The end of the film, where Thorn sneaks into the processing plant where human corpses are made into Soylent Green wafers, is both chilling, and oddly drama-less. In the end, the Soylent minions hunt Thorn down, but he survives long enough to utter the film’s catchphrase to Chief Hatcher. Yet, one does not know if it is enough, for Hatcher has already been co-opted, and has a track record of taking the easy way out. Yet, that fact, and its ambiguity, shows that the film does not recapitulate its characters’ dilemmas, and has a depth many later, better made films, sci fi or not, do not have. It is also why Soylent Green is still a film worth watching.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unlikely 2.0 website.]
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