Back in the days before “Star Wars” and superhero movies transformed cinematic science fiction into gleaming toy commercials, science fiction cinema (with occasional exceptions) consisted largely of futuristic dystopias that were more like feature-length episodes of “The Twilight Zone” than today’s largely escapist entertainment. It’s far less common today to see a major studio offer up a ‘downer’ dystopian movie (with very few special effects) headlined by current big name stars.
The late, great, lantern-jawed icon Charlton Heston was practically the poster boy of these late 1960s/early-1970s nihilistic prophecies, having starred in four of them; “Planet of the Apes” (1968), “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970), “The Omega Man”, (1971) and “Soylent Green” (1973).
Directed by Richard Fleischer (1954’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, 1966’s “Fantastic Voyage”), “Soylent Green” is adapted from author Harry Harrison’s “Make Room! Make Room!” (1966), but with one very important plot twist from screenwriter Stanley Greenberg that is as gruesome as it is a vital linchpin for the entire story. If you aren’t familiar with this movie, but plan on seeing it on DVD or Blu-ray sometime?
Stop reading now.
Come back and read the rest of this only after you’ve seen the movie, because the plot twist is so central to the story that any analysis/discussion of it is impossible to have without acknowledgment of ‘the big reveal’…
**** SCOOP SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD! ****
New York City, in the year 2022 (only four years from now) faces massive overpopulation and resource depletion. The powerful Soylent Corporation manages to provide a cheap, nutritional food supply to roughly half of the crushingly-dense global population. Soylent manufactures multi-colored wafers that are concentrated protein based from a combination of organic and inorganic sources. Their latest product, Soylent Green, is very popular, and sells out as soon as supplies are made available, causing massive riots in the streets.
The largely illiterate population of 2022’s New York City is dependent upon ‘books.’ Books are the few older, remaining literate individuals who can still read records & ledgers, and whose services are sought after by law enforcement; sort of an organic internet. New York City detective Thorn (Heston at his most Hestonian) and his police ‘book’ roommate Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson, in his final performance) are contracted by their precinct chief Lt. Hatcher (Brock Peters) to solve the murder of a wealthy Soylent executive named Simonson (Orson Welles/Hitchcock favorite Joseph Cotton), who was brutally murdered in his luxury apartment (an extreme rarity in 2022 NYC), while his bodyguard Fielding (Chuck Connors) and ‘furniture’ Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young) were conveniently out shopping for rare grocery items, such as meat and fresh vegetables.
Thorn and Sol eventually determine that Simonson’s murder was actually a planned assassination to guard a ghoulish secret of the Soylent Corporation; a secret so horrible that a local priest (Heston’s “Omega Man” costar Lincoln Kilpatrick) has gone nearly insane after hearing Simonson’s confession.
Fielding later kills the priest in his confessional, in order to prevent his telling anyone else about Soylent Corporation’s dirty secret.
Meanwhile, Thorn begins a relationship with Shirl, the ‘furniture’ (i.e. concubine) left behind by Simonson. Shirl is contractually obligated to be made available as furniture for the next tenant of Simonson’s luxury apartment. Until that next tenant arrives, Thorn partakes in the luxuries of the place; including a hot shower, lots of elbow room, good food, and, of course, Shirl herself.
The future for women in this world resembles a twisted combination of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the late Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion. While viewers may rightly feel a need to puke or scream at the grotesque misogyny of the film, bear in mind that this is not some aspirational “Star Trek”-style utopia; this is a cautionary tale of a world going to hell on all cylinders. That beautiful women are treated as things to be kept rather than people is not at all surprising in this dehumanized future.
As Thorn fails to turn up any new leads on the Simonson case, Hatcher decides to close it and reassign Thorn to Riot Control. Riots are a frequent side-effect of the city’s dwindling resources, as crowds of starving people are mercilessly shoveled into the back of giant garbage truck-like “Scoop” vehicles. It’s during a routine riot control mission that Thorn is nearly killed by Simonson’s homeless assassin, Gilbert (Stephen Young), who is then crushed to death himself by a Scoop, just before Thorn can get a confession.
Thorn, on his own, reopens the Simonson murder case.
After researching all materials on the Soylent Corporation (sans internet; no such thing imagined back in 1973), Sol consults with other ‘books’ at the Exchange to confirm his own shocking findings about the Soylent Corporation. They collectively determine that the evidence for the Soylent Corporation’s horrible unnamed ’secret’ is indisputable.
Distraught by the news, Sol decides that it’s time for him to ‘go home’ to a euthanasia center; a place for those who choose to check out of their hideous world, due to age, infirmity or simply to end it all.
Sol leaves a note for Thorn, who barely discovers it in time.
At the center, Sol is greeted by ushers who administer a humane slow poison while making him as comfortable as possible. Sol is allowed to enjoy a room bathed in his favorite color (orange), while listening to a playlist of his favorite classical music. The room is lined with a giant, wraparound movie screen that plays images of the once lush and beautiful Earth of Sol’s youth.
The nature imagery playing over divinely orchestrated music of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Edvard Grieg is intoxicating.
Thorn arrives at the center with only moments to spare. He doesn’t try to stop Sol (he can’t), though he has to learn what Sol and the other books uncovered. Opening a window into Sol’s chamber, he sees the images of a bountiful world he has never known. The sight of its unspoiled beauty reduces the cynical cop to tears. Thorn breaks protocol and is allowed to speak with the dying Sol via an intercom. Sol excitedly asks, “Do you see it??” Thorn tearfully replies, “Oh yes…”
As the longtime partners say their goodbyes, the dying Sol tells Thorn the ugly secret of the Soylent Corporation. We, the audience, are not privy to Sol’s whispered deathbed confession. Sol dies soon afterward, and two ushers take his body away for ‘processing.’ There are no funerals, burials, memorial services or even last rites in this brutal world.
Upon learning the as-yet-unrevealed secret, Thorn clandestinely hitches a ride on a truck bound for a Soylent Corporation factory. Once there, he sees ‘the secret’ for himself; bodies in bags being churned out as familiar green wafers on a conveyor belt. Soylent Green wafers are the reconstituted remains of human corpses. The human race is now reduced to mass consumer-cannibalism.
This is a shocking twist not found in Harrison’s book, and is every bit as powerful as Rod Serling’s half-buried Statue of Liberty at the end of “Planet of the Apes,” another shocker ending also not found in its source novel (Pierre Boulle’s “Planete de Singes”). Barely escaping the Soylent factory with his life, a followed Thorn calls Hatcher on a public phone and gives him a heads-up. One of Thorn’s pursuers is the late Simonson’s bodyguard Fielding, who was instrumental in his late boss’ assassination and is intent on stopping Thorn from airing Soylent’s horrific secret.
After a final showdown at the church, Thorn kills Fielding, just as Hatcher arrives with backup. A wounded, bleeding Thorn tells Hatcher what Sol uncovered; the ocean’s kelp forests, fish, and other resources are dying. An alternative, abundant source of protein was found; and this is the shocking secret that Thorn screams to the crowds gathered inside and around the church; “Soylent Green is made of people…SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!”
It’s all about the “PEOPLE!”
The cast of the film deserves major kudos, as does the against-type direction of filmmaker Richard Fleischer, who’d previously directed Disney’s first live-action film “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954), which is a favorite of mine, as well as 1966’s “Fantastic Voyage.” To his credit, Fleischer is an inspired choice. Fleischer gives his vision of a nightmarishly plausible future a gritty and truly stifling reality. Given what New York City was in the days before its post-1980s urban renewal, it’s not hard to imagine “Soylent Green” being a then-logical extrapolation of things to come.
Charlton Heston plays a character not too unlike his cynical characters from his other dystopia flicks. Heston’s Thorn is a product of his world whose ignorance acts as a shield against the horror of his daily existence; he simply doesn’t know any better. Heston completely drops his guard as Thorn is overwhelmed by the visions of Earth-that-was during Sol’s death ceremony. It’s a rare moment of genuine humility for Heston, something quite different from his more familiar familiar teeth-gnashing anger and bitterness.
Heston’s confession of love to his old “Ten Commandments” costar Edward G. Robinson is expressed with appropriate heart as well. The two were almost reunited in 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” but Robinson had to decline the role of orangutan administrator ‘Dr. Zaius’ due to personal difficulties with the makeup. Their screen-test together is in the video link below (at around the 2:40 mark):
The rich, father-son chemistry between Heston and Robinson could be bottled and used as an alternative energy source. The scene where the two of them enjoy an extremely rare home-cooked meal made from luxury foods Thorn lifts from Simonson’s apartment is a workout for the emotions. The moment where the older Sol, who remembers a better world, breaks down over the sight of a piece of beef (“How did we come to this?”) is moving.
“Soylent Green” was Robinson’s 101st film (and his last), and it’s an fittingly meaningful role as well. He passed away in January of 1973, and the film was released in May of that same year. It’s downright meta that Robinson’s final scene is a euthanasia sequence that feels like a farewell to both his life and his long career (“Little Caesar”, “Ten Commandments” and “Double Indemnity” to name a few).
The late Brock Peters (Lt. Hatcher) was also a highly reputable actor, costarring in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), as well as a memorable but pivotal role in the Star Trek movies as Admiral Cartwright in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986) and “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991). It was in the latter film where the once-upstanding Admiral Cartwright was revealed as a conspirator in a plot against Klingon/Federation peace. He also memorably voiced the role of Darth Vader in National Public Radio’s “Star Wars” radio play adaptations (1981-1996) of the original Star Wars trilogy of films.
Ingenious, against-type casting of TV’s former favorite single-dad and “Rifleman” Chuck Connors was a clever move as well. Not being familiar with “Rifleman” as a kid, my first exposure to the late Connors came through “Soylent Green”, which first I saw at around seven years old or so (ah, the joys of free-range parenting…). To this day, the sight of Connors’ unnaturally angular features on TV reruns still sends a shudder down my spine.
Equally memorable is the performance of the late Lincoln Kilpatrick (Heston’s costar from “The Omega Man”) as the traumatized priest, who, after hearing Simonson’s grisly confession, walks around like a zombie; half-dead inside from learning the truth. Kilpatrick’s fixed, unblinking eyes and faraway voice are haunting.
Sharp-eyed (and eared) fellow Trekkies might also recognize Celia Lovsky, who plays the “Exchange Leader” of the ‘books’ (she’s also the only positive female character of the film). Lovsky portrayed the Vulcan matriarch “T’Pau” in the 1967 classic Trek episode, “Amok Time.” She was also the ex-wife of famed character actor Peter Lorre, who coincidentally costarred in director Fleischer’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” 19 years earlier.
Soylent Green’s 2022 vs. Current Reality 2018.
While the current ‘future’ of 2018 isn’t quite as unlivable as the film’s 2022, there are more than a few signs that we’re headed in the film’s direction.
Climate change, as predicted in the film by specific mention of the ‘greenhouse effect’ (the commonly-used 20th century term) is a reality now. It’s no longer hypothetical, despite those who choose to dismiss/ignore it in favor of short-term oil revenue or other material gain. Rising oceanic temperatures are lending cyclical storm systems much greater punch, giving rise to ‘storms of the century’ on an almost annual basis. Polar caps are melting, with sheets of ice breaking off and drifting southward. While we’re not yet feeling year-round heatwaves in New York City, many other parts of the world (including my own state) are experiencing record heat, persistent drought, far-longer fire seasons, and the beginnings of ecological collapse. We’re on a planet with one hell of a fever, as nearly every successive year seems to break new global records.
The movie’s prediction of dying oceanic ecosystems is also upon us; with rapidly depleting fish populations, islands of trash floating in the mid-Pacific, and ‘bleaching’ coral reefs that also leave the future health of our oceans (and other ecosystems) in grave doubt. Mass extinctions are also occurring with alarming regularity, with many once-common creatures dying off within my own half-century lifetime. What effects these extinctions will have on the global food chain isn’t yet clear, though I’m fairly sure it’s not good news.
As for overpopulation? At the time of the movie’s release 45 years ago, the world population was 3.9 billion people. In those several decades since, it has nearly doubled to 7.6 billion. New York City’s current population is around 8.5 million or so. Granted, that’s far less than the movie’s 40 million, but who wants that prediction to come true, right?
While modern women of western countries aren’t the dehumanized ‘furniture’ concubine-servants of “Soylent Green,” there is still a gender pay gap. The #MeToo movement has recently shed light on previously hidden sexual harassment/abuse both in the workplace and everywhere else. We’ve still yet to see a female president (or even vice-president) of the United States, despite women winning the right to vote nearly a century ago. There are also many countries around the world where women are still wantonly and brutally abused institutionally. The kidnapped women and children of Boko Haram (the West African Islamic State), for example. Or the prolific sex-trafficking trade in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Women in Saudi Arabia were only recently granted the privilege to drive. Despite the sheer madness of trying to suppress and control a full half or more of the world’s population, it is still being done today all over the world…even in our own backyard.
The movie also depicts a future of decaying technology and infrastructure, where even relatively simple technologies such as wristwatches or security cameras aren’t easily reparable due to a lack of manufacturing bases to create spare parts. While our current technology, particularly in consumer electronics, is far more advanced than the clunky, analog tech of the film, it’s not inconceivable that some future threat (hacking of power plants, EMP devices, etc) might render much of it useless in our near future. Not an immediate threat perhaps, though not an unimaginable one, either. Perhaps the ‘books’ of the film are the biological remnants of a post-internet internet?
Unfortunately for all of us, “Soylent Green” got more things right than wrong, even if the exact metrics were exaggerated. It may not be subtle, but it’s not exactly wrong, either.
Even today at big ticket sci-fi conventions such as WonderCon and San Diego Comic Con, I still see the occasional Soylent Green cosplayer every now and then. They’re rare, but they always make me smile. It’s always nice to see someone from my generation, or from a newer generation, sharing the same admiration and affection for a movie that made such a sizable dent in my own kinder-trauma.
With the current, never-ending barrage of remakes and reimaginings, it could be an interesting and timely challenge to re-tackle Harry Harrison’s “Make Room! Make Room!” source novel once again for a new audience.
That the original film is still so remembered is a testament to its shock value as well as its powerful, if unsubtle ecological messages, which still resonate strongly today. While the original “Soylent Green” may have seemed alarmist back in 1973, it’s in rapid danger of being eclipsed by reality today.