This was one of the grim science fiction films of the early 1970s. The Andromeda Strain, Logan’s Run, Dark Star, THX 1138, Rollerball, The Omega Man, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Future World, Solaris, Silen Running, Sleeper, The Terminal Man, Slaughterhouse Five, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, A Clockwork Orange, The Stepford Wives.
The future didn’t look so bright.
Over-industrialization, corporations replacing governments, loss of personal freedom, overpopulation, science run amouk, and environmental ruin were a few of the unwelcome shades of the future.
Harry Harrison wrote the book, published in 1966, that would form the idea for the film. The film was made on the MGM studio lot, the last film to be in production on the streets of the lot before the real estate was sold off for development.
Charlton Heston stars as Frank Thorn, a mostly honest policeman. In this story no one is totally honest and survives. Heston was in his sci-fi and disaster film phase of his career.
This was Edward G. Robinson‘s last film, his 101st role. He was ill when the film began production and his contract specified that he would not work past 5pm daily. When 5pm arrived he was supposed to leave, even if the scene was not finished. However, he often wouldn’t leave, wanting to complete his scene and stay around the film set. “I like it here,” he told director Richard Fleischer. Robinson died several weeks after shooting his death scene in the film.
When he was offered the film role, he gladly accepted despite his health. “It’s about something,” Robinson told his wife after reading the script.
Robinson is Sol Roth, an sage and educated man, a professor, with books in their apartment. Thorn and Sol are roommates.
Food is scare except for synthetic food called Soylent Green. The rich can afford real food. In their cramped apartment, Sol and Thorn generate their own electricity with a bicycle generator. The air outside is a sickly green smog.
Soylent is artificial food that is sold in the form of a cracker. Soylent comes in different colors.
Leigh Taylor-Young is Shirl, a kept woman of Simonson, a rich man, played by Joseph Cotton. She has a nice apartment and good food. He is suddenly murdered, but hardly surprised when the hitman shows up. The murder brings Thorn into Shirl’s orbit to find the killer. Simonson was a director of Soylent.
Shirl is one of a group of young, attractive women who are called the “furniture girls” because their function is pleasure and entertainment, and because they belong to the apartment each of them lives in. Thorn becomes involved with Shirl and enjoys the access to better food, liquor and a hot shower as a result.
Society is ruled by a plutocracy, corporations that provide influence over the economy and government. People live crowded together in dank dormitories, homeless sleeping on stairs, overcrowded apartments, wherever they can collapse.
The police help themselves to food and other thing when interviewing people of interest, including sex. It is the spoils of the profession. Thorn brings home vegetables from Simonson’s apartment for Sol to enjoy, along with a piece of steak. Sol has memories of fruit but Thorn does not. It brings tears to Sol of a better time.
The scene in the film where Sol and Thorn feast on the vegetables and liquor was added by the director, it was not in the script but was put in the film to underscore how different this life is and how they almost make love to this gourmet food.
It is Sol’s knowledge of food and the Soylent Corporation that provides Thorn clues. Thorn has given Sol several books from Simonson’s apartment pertaining to the Soylent Corporation.
Thorn finds reasons to return to the apartment to see Shirl. It is there that he samples ice in a drink, air conditioning, cigarettes and her. In the beginning, Thorn took her to bed because he could she was part of the spoils, but attraction develops between them. Shirl longs for human connection, and she begins to feel that with Thorn.
Word gets to the Governor that Thorn won’t close the murder case and is talking to people he shouldn’t. Efforts are made to eliminate those individuals.
When the Soylent Green food is gone at the market, people riot. Thorn and other police are equipped in their riot gear. Rioters are scooped up with big trucks and dumped in the back of the trucks like trash. Someone tries to assassinate Heston during the riot. His would be assassin is killed before Thorn can interrogate him.
Thorn shifts from investigating the murder to fighting back against those attempting to stop the investigation and him.
Meanwhile, Shirl has a new man, who has taken the apartment, and now owns her. She is clearly not pleased, but it’s her life, and she has no choice.
Sol is part of a committee doing research on Soylent, that meets secretly in a secluded library. After leaving the meeting, he has reached a decision.
Sol then visits the center where he is going to die. It’s like he is going to a spa for a sauna. Thorn goes after him, but he’s too late. Sol is being processed for his own death. He is watching beautiful pictures of wildlife and sunsets, listening to classical music. Heston talks with Sol as his death nears.
As Sol’s body is wheeled away, Thorn goes to the back of the facility where the dead bodies are loaded into trash trucks. Thorn jumps into a truck, riding it to the processing plant, where the dead are processed into food – Soylent products.
“Soylent Green is people,” Thorn says at the end of the film. This is the famous line from the film. The Soylent Green part was not in the book an was invented for the film. Still, the book painted a grim view of what the future would hold.
In 1972, the environmental movement was new and concerns over population would grow. The Population Bomb was published by Paul Ehrlich in 1968, which predicted famine and the growing scarcity of resources. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970.
Our efforts in population growth and environmental protection have generally been positive, but uneven. Climate change and world hunger are important topics, on which the world remains divided. Subjects for another blog.
Who knows, maybe Soylent Green is the future?