(1973) Directed by Richard Fleischer; Written by Stanley R. Greenberg; Based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison; Starring: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Joseph Cotten, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors and Brock Peters; Available on DVD.
“The relevancy of the picture today stands up very strongly against what is happening. This picture is usually listed under science fiction, but as far as I’m concerned, the fiction part isn’t valid anymore. This isn’t even a science picture, but we’re much closer to it than we realize or want to be.” – Richard Fleischer (from DVD commentary)
You asked for it, you got it. Thanks to a recent Twitter poll, the film du jour for Dystopian December is the one and only Soylent Green. I wouldn’t need much prompting, however, to discuss one of the landmark science fiction films of the 1970s, directed by the underrated Richard Fleischer. Not enough credit is given to Fleischer for his exemplary contributions to genre filmmaking. With 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Fantastic Voyage (1966) under his belt, he adopted a less fanciful approach to depict a planet in crisis. Stanley Greenberg’s script, based loosely on Harry Harrison’s book Make Room, Make Room, explores the source material a step or two further, taking the consequence of overcrowding to its logical, horrible conclusion.
Even if you’ve never watched Soylent Green, you’re probably aware of the more (ahem) unsavory aspects of the plot. For the benefit of those who haven’t seen it, I’m taking the middle ground, and will do my best to steer clear of any big spoilers. The opening credits effectively set the tone for the rest of the film, with a montage of still photos, which depict, beginning in the 1800s, a steady rise of the population, linked with rise of the industrial revolution. Urban centers become increasingly congested, and pollution, strife, rampant unemployment, poverty and sickness follow. A caption informs us the population of New York City (the movie’s setting) has skyrocketed to 40 million in 2022. The term “gritty” is overused, typically to describe a reboot/reimagining, etc. of a movie, but in this case, it’s an appropriate descriptor. The Earth has been irreversibly damaged by the greenhouse effect, raising the temperature and making basic resources scarce. Society is in decline and stagnation, literally and metaphorically feeding upon itself. Most of the populace lives in crumbling buildings,* choked in a perpetual gauzy, pollution-choked haze.** Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (Symphony #6) figures prominently in one of the film’s key scenes and end credits, a callback to a verdant past that no longer exists.
* Fun Fact #1: according to Fleischer, this was the final film to be shot on MGM’s backlot, before it was demolished. The ramshackle state of the building facades only added to the film’s atmosphere.
** Fun Fact #2: Fleischer worked with cinematographer Richard H. Kline to develop a filter, using water and green dye, to simulate the polluted air of the street scenes.
Charlton Heston stars as detective Thorn, who works for a corrupt police department where everyone’s on the take (His boss, Chief Hatcher (Brock Peters), explains, “You’re bought as soon as they pay you a salary.”). By virtue of having a job and a residence (he shares a dingy apartment with his roommate Sol), he’s more fortunate than most. When he’s sent to investigate the murder of a well-to-do corporate board member, he’s not above pilfering his luxury apartment for a few niceties. Everyone gets a cut, from the clean-up crew to his boss. Heston successfully walks the line between integrity and roguish behavior with his character. Thorn’s just a survivor, like everyone else in this damaged society.
Joseph Cotten leaves a lasting impression in his short role as William Simonson, a lawyer on the board of the Soylent Corporation who learns a terrible secret. He lives a sheltered life in a high-rise luxury apartment building, isolated from the squalor of the city below. The weight of the secret proves too much to bear, and someone decides his knowledge is too dangerous to be kept. In a polite exchange with his assassin, Simonson, resigned to his fate, concludes his death is inevitable, based on the dire circumstances. It’s not right that he dies, but it’s an inevitable byproduct of the wheels that have been set in motion.
Leigh Taylor-Young presents a tragic figure as Shirl, Simonson’s former lover and semi-permanent resident of the apartment building (she and her cohorts are referred to as “furniture”). She’s emblematic of the role of women in this future society, as little more than servant and sex object, fit for entertaining and odd chores. After Simonson’s demise, she’s worried about her fate, and being accepted by the new tenant. For Shirl, there’s no escape from her life of indentured servitude. She faces an uncertain future as she grows older, which we can only speculate about.
The film’s most affecting performance belongs to Edward G. Robinson,* in his celebrated 101st and final role (Robinson passed away a few weeks after filming completed). He proves his versatility as Thorn’s roommate and moral center, and serves as the heart of the film. As a former college professor, he understands the value of books, knowledge and beauty, and laments what has been lost. He’s lived too long and seen too much, remembering a time when good food was plentiful and living conditions were more hospitable. Not much is made of their living arrangement, or how they came to become roommates, but they interact like an old married couple, cognizant of each other’s moods and idiosyncrasies. There’s an unspoken love between them, best illustrated by an endearing (mostly improvised) meal scene.
* Interesting Fact: According to Fleischer, Robinson was almost completely deaf by the time he appeared in Soylent Green. Through meticulous rehearsals and careful timing of his scenes, Robinson concealed his inability to hear his fellow actors.
Food, and its scarcity, is one of the movie’s focal elements. Even for the wealthy, fresh ingredients (fruit, vegetables and meat) are rare and prohibitively expensive. Strict rationing is a way of life for the masses. Most people subsist off government-issued processed food wafers of questionable nutrition: Soylent Red, Yellow and Green,* pure sustenance, nothing more. When the supply of Soylent is exhausted, resulting in a full-blown riot, Thorn and his fellow cops are called upon to keep the peace. Big trucks equipped with scoops help collect and disperse any lingering members of the crowd. The trucks, and other waste vehicles throughout the film reinforce a recurring theme, how most people are regarded as little more than garbage.
* Fun Fact #3: If you ever wondered what Soylent Green tasted like (And why would you?), according to Fleischer, the green crackers were nothing more than pieces of wood painted green.
Soylent Green may not be the flashiest science fiction film to come out of the 1970s, but it’s among the most thought-provoking. The superb cast, including two golden age actors, Robinson and Cotten, sell the dire circumstances of a world stretched beyond the breaking point. Of the many dystopian movies, this one seems to present the most plausible scenario. We’ve already seen many of the factors in the movie come to fruition, with too many people and not enough resources, widespread corruption, big corporations that are more interested in the bottom line, and elected officials that are paid to look the other way. Sadly, Soylent Green becomes less fiction and more fact with each passing year, a rumination on what could be, as well as a reflection of what already is.