Soylent Green is a masterpiece, and I kind of wish it wasn't.
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Written by Stanley R. Greenberg (based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison)
Spoiler alert: get real
For all that it offers perhaps the single ugliest dystopia in movie history, as delivered within one of the grimmest studio films ever made, I never imagined that Soylent Green still had the power to actually upset me. How could it? In the years since its 1973 release, Soylent Green went from an unnerving apocalyptic prognostication to ubiquitous pop cultural background noise, and its twist ending went from a horrifying shock to being a thing that everybody already knows by the time they can operate a remote control without assistance. Beyond that, it's not like I lacked direct familiarity with it: this marks at least my third watch.
And so I had reason to believe that its charge had more-or-less dissipated, and that this viewing would follow the pattern of all my previous ones, where I appreciated it with a certain detachment, finding myself largely unmoved by its pursuit of several related hysterias which I had reckoned as being either overblown (and to some extent they were), or, if they did happen to be based on something real and dangerous, then they were at least being dealt with by responsible adults. It maybe goes without saying the last time I watched it was more than two years ago. In any event, I was wrong, and I knew I was wrong almost instantly.
And that opening gesture is probably the second-most famous thing about it. It's about as oblique a beginning as I can imagine: a quick-cut montage of still images by kinestatic artist Chuck Braverman that uses a hundred or so archival photographs that don't immediately suggest "a vicious sci-fi thriller, set in 2022" so much as they do "a Harold Lloyd movie, set in 1922," accompanied by a downbeat but not-unpleasant bit of progressive jazz from composer Fred Myrow, which suggests "vicious sci-fi thriller" even less than the pictures do. Beginning with black-and-white images of turn-of-the-20th-century America, Braverman's opening coalesces when we realize that what we're seeing is a shotgun history of the Industrial Revolution, with the emphasis placed on the dramatic increase of the human population that it permitted and the corresponding decline in the habitability of everywhere it touched. The precise moment this clicks is hard to say, given that anybody watching Soylent today knows damn well what the movie's going to be about. But I suppose it must coincide with the most striking image of the whole montage: a field of newly-built Ford automobiles, hundreds of them, parked bumper-to-bumper, each exactly the same and stretching vertiginously from foreground to horizon. Without a single human being to be seen, the cars sit on a patch of endless pavement without any emotionally-parsable purpose or meaning, and they're almost nauseating in the context of what's to come: an unbearable symbol of the unsustainable sprawl of human consumption that also suggests, unmistakably, just what the drive toward commodification has rendered human individuals into.
By the time it gets to the color photographs, of traffic jams and people wearing masks just to make it to the store without coughing up blood, I think the point's been made, and it's hard to overstate how much I love this opening. For one thing, it competes with the following year's Parallax View for the 70s' coolest employment of the still-image montage as an affective device; for another, it strikes home like a hammer (and I suspect the meandering tenor of Myrow's score may be the biggest reason why it does) just how blithely we dance toward global environmental catastrophe, especially now, because now we're effectively despoiling the planet on purpose; and finally—though maybe this is the least important thing—it all-but-dispenses with the need to exposit a bunch of world-building backstory, in favor of laying out the basic shape of a future credibly extrapolated from the present with nothing but pure cinema.
Theoretically, anyhow. Stanley Greenberg's screenplay does not actually dispense with it, though in fairness Greenberg's screenplay was finished long before the filmmakers decided on contracting out the prologue to Braverman's design house. Nonetheless, Soylent's usual conversation will involve one or another of its characters—sometimes wistfully, sometimes angrily, always despairingly—complaining about how bad things are and how much better they were before people ruined the world by using too much of it and making too many more of themselves. Almost everybody with speaking lines gets in on this action, but the primary conduit for nostalgic bitterness is, of course, Edward G. Robinson in his final performance—he was dying of cancer and hiding it, and I have an inkling that informed his choices—and his dialogues against Charlton Heston tend to revolve around the former remembering the way things used to be and the latter sitting there looking totally bemused by such concepts as "strawberry jam" and "air conditioning" and "a world not choking on its own vomit." (Which does, I'm afraid, engender what might be the single most pervasive doubt one could have about Soylent's world-building: assuming that Heston is meant to be playing his own age, then our hero, Robert Thorn, ought to be able to reliably remember the late 1970s—which means, in turn, that Soylent intends us to believe that the process of total agricultural and economic collapse, even in the United States, was essentially complete no later than three or four years down the road from the year of Soylent's release, which is more shrilly alarmist than even this movie can quite get away with.)
So: Thorn's an NYPD homicide detective in a city of 40 million people with a 50% unemployment rate, an average temperate of 90 degrees, and about a hundred murders a day; and one of the film's most depressing implications is that he genuinely is one of the better ones, as his captain (Brock Peters) mentions throughout. But even as a high-ranking officer, Thorn still only gets half a room, sharing an already-tiny apartment with his so-called "book," Sol Roth (Robinson), who does all the boring investigative work whilst Thorn serves as the leg-man. (And this would be the other big nitpick with Soylent Green's fallen world: while it's a reasonably solid metaphor, the deterioration of information systems represented by these living "books" is so terribly pronounced that it's frankly slightly hard to believe that nations or corporations, or any other civilized structure, could continue to exist in forms still almost capable of feeding the population.)
Thorn's job consists mostly of triage—finding excuses not to investigate crimes—and he seems to care mostly to the extent that his position gives him license to indulge in the petty theft of dead people's property. But Thorn finds his routine broken when he's assigned the case of a certain Simonson (a briefly-seen but soulful Joseph Cotten), who it turns out was a director of the Soylent Corporation, the producer of such staple foods as Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow, as well as a new, popular, "plankton-based" protein snack, Soylent Green, and therefore the only thing standing between the world population and starvation.
Determining immediately that Simonson's murder wasn't the burglary gone awry it was made to look like, Thorn's first suspects involve Simonson's bodyguard (Chuck Connors) and the "furniture" that came with Simonson's apartment, a concubine named Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young). But Thorn becomes convinced it's bigger than that. First pressured to solve the case, then, mysteriously, to drop it, Thorn only latches on tighter instead—driven to figure out why Simonson cried in the night, why he went to church for the first time in decades, and why it was he had to die. The thing is, it's even bigger than Thorn could imagine: the priest who heard Simonson's confession looks like a ghost who just hasn't died yet, and the conspirators rectify this mistake soon enough; and when Sol finds out, he kills himself. As the trailer asked, what is the secret of Soylent Green?
As you know, Soylent Green is people, it is made out of people, and despite "Soylent Green is peeeee-puhl!" being the film's immortal moment, it's entirely possible that it works even better with a viewer who already knows. Obviously, I can't prove this hypothesis, since the twist was never a twist for me and I hope, since I just spoiled it, it wasn't still one for you. But it gives the hopeless fatalism that's the reason for the movie to exist an even greater, even more unendurable weight—especially as Thorn makes his way through a Soylent factory, and Myrow's score becomes inseparably entangled with the music of the vast machines, and we spend long minutes waiting for Thorn to be (probably) fatally shot during his daring escape, whereupon he screams his dying words into the void.
Adapted from Harry Harrison's book Make Room! Make Room!, Soylent Green arrived with so much new invention by Greenberg that it's remarkable that the novelist even got credited, let alone paid, since it seems the only things the movie has in common with Harrison's novel are an overcrowded planet and a policeman protagonist. The various flavors of Soylent, including the new one, are entirely Greenberg's creation. So's the conspiracy plot. They might as well have written a check to Paul and Anne Ehlrich in exchange for the rights to The Population Bomb, which is the book that Soylent's really based on. (Then again, it's not like the Ehlrichs' own call to alarm was original either, though they may have been very slightly less racist about it.)
That population bomb never went off, at least not the way the Ehlrichs predicted. The Green Revolution saved us from famine; new technology and social reforms have ensured a much lower growth rate, potentially allowing for a modest and happy rate of dieback, assuming nothing goes wrong. Which is where Soylent's modern relevance comes in. Here all the billions of us are, two years and change away from 2022, with a planet that we managed to coax enough food out of to feed us—but it's hard to avoid feeling like we bought our lives on credit. Certainly, it's enraging to watch a popular movie made 46 years ago that warns of catastrophic climate change. Meanwhile, it's amusing, in a deadening sort of way, to poke around the Internet and learn that, 46 years later, right-wingers are still furious at Soylent Green—yet remain fascinated by it, keen on turning it into some sort of parable about the horrors of socialism (and, worse, vegetarianism), a reading so at odds with the screeching bullhorn of the film's text that even seasoned masters of cognitive dissonance cannot entirely manage it.
And Soylent is, basically, a bludgeon shaped like a movie. But it might be at its most graceful in the interstitial moments where it allows its characters to do Normal People Things, like take a shower or eat meat, which they treat as miracles almost beyond their ken. Thorn and Sol share a nearly-wordless dinner, made from Simonson's pilfered meat and veggies, and it's heartbreaking how much happiness they're able to eke out of beef stew and an apple. And, in a film that is almost entirely humorless, this is the only time it manages anything like a joke (at least one that isn't sick), as when Thorn's served a salad as a first course, and chomps down on some iceberg lettuce for the first time—and clearly has no idea what all of Sol's fuss over "real food" was about.
Of course, "graceful" is hardly the word that would come to mind for most every other scene, though it might be the most graceful film its director, workhorse Richard Fleischer, ever made in terms of technical acumen and confidence. In ethos, it's the very polar opposite of what I presume is his other best film, 1966's science-optimistic Fantastic Voyage—it's amazing what a difference seven years can make—but they share much the same sense for meticulous visual storytelling and the same mastery over tone, even if their specific visuals and specific tones couldn't be more different.
Now, I want to point out here (the why will become evident in a couple of paragraphs) that Soylent Green has a fine story. It has an extremely solid conspiracy plot to hang that story on, and the nearly-silent thriller setpiece during a riot that pits Thorn against a would-be assassin is just about as exciting and well-crafted as it could possibly be. It also has reasonably good dialogue—even all those "in my day, we wore onions on our belts" diatribes are just about as well-integrated into the flow of the thing as possible—and it has excellent performances, especially from Robinson, but really from practically everybody. (Even Simonson's murderer (Stephen Young) is played with an uncommon amount of empathy for a plot device with two scenes and four lines.)
But "everybody" definitely includes Heston, who goes for greater restraint than usual. Which, yes, is not much restraint in absolute terms; but he finds a great deal of nuanced and contradictory humanity to chew on here in the last widely-celebrated role of his august career. He even plays well against Leigh-Taylor in a romantic subplot that, indeed, betrays how much of an objectifying fantasy it must've been for somebody, but which I don't find completely misjudged, because somehow the actors find the right notes to make it work, more as an expression of sadness than actual desire. It doesn't hurt that whatever eroticism was originally intended gets undercut on the one hand by the way Thorn is rather plainly more turned-on by faucets and working electricity, and on the other hand by the sheer unpleasantness of the whole concept, and the way Leigh-Taylor embodies the smiling doll-like dependency inherent in that concept. "Don't you ever get mad?" Thorn asks the docile piece of furniture. She replies, without raising her voice and almost as a genuine question, "What for?"
With Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, and Soylent, Heston had now completed a trilogy of downbeat apocalyptic cinema (a tetralogy, even, if you're honorable, and count Beneath the Planet of the Apes, too). PotA gave him a sharper character—Thorn is dumber than George Taylor's nihilistic astronaut (and, for an actor not as respected as he ought to be, Heston certainly plays to these distinctions, making Thorn a meathead with a dimming conscience that has flashed one last time back to life)—but Soylent is, I think, the best of his adventures in science fiction.
And the reason it's his best doesn't really have all that much to do with him, or with that story, but with the unlivable poisoned world created by cinematographer Richard Kline, and by art directors George Davis and Edward Carfango, and by an army of extras, including what must have been a substantial number of stuntmen tasked with being scooped up by pneumatic lifts and thrown in big piles into the back of garbage trucks. The human bodies are such omnipresent parts of the frame that they stop even registering as extras. They're just another part of the set, like a wall. Which is the point: Fleischer subtly gives the plot away when the Soylent arrives—it's no accident that the image of humans scooped into trucks is prefigured by the image of wafers being scooped into bags. To add to the misery, every one of Kline's daytime exteriors is caked in a yellow-green filter that, in fairness, usually really does convince as the toxic smog it represents; and so despite great things waiting for Kline in his future, Soylent might be the DP's triumph.
As for Davis and Carfango, I almost want to call them lazy. But it's the kind of lazy that's also a kind of genius: hardly one single thing about Soylent Green signals "futuristic" at all—from the stark white interior decor of Simonson's apartment that is somehow also incredibly gaudy, to the way that Shirl marvels over a contemporary video game cabinet, to the buildings, to the cars, to Thorn's sweat-stained neckerchief. Nothing about Soylent looks cheap, I want to make that clear. The mattework is impeccable. The sets are large and detailed. The extras were no doubt costly. But Soylent looks like they found 1973 as it was, and then it died right before their eyes, and so they stuck around to watch it rot. It really might be the most repellent cinematic future ever devised, in part because it doesn't do anything to make it imaginative or interesting besides just strewing it with trash and human bodies, which in its view are more-or-less the same thing. Consider Blade Runner's cyberpunk 2019. It's a nightmarescape—but still a place of dreams, where Replicants die Christlike, and the worst men can still find redemption in their blood. Soylent is so incapable of dreaming of the future that even its dystopia is just a thoughtless extension of the then-present. Unlike most apocalyptic fiction, it has no interest in escapism. It's unwilling to take the slightest joy in the world it's made. So when its characters still find fragments of joy in the garbage pile they live in, of course it's shattering. But then, the most joy experienced by any character throughout the whole damned film is when Sol goes to the suicide clinic. They treat him to a nature documentary and some Beethoven, then sell his corpse to Soylent—and it's impossible to believe he didn't know they would.
That's the part where I lost it on this spin through New York 2022, though I don't even think the cloying imagery of nature or the Pastorale was what did it. Rather, it was Sol's final acceptance of all this as just the way things are. Yes: he tells Thorn, and exhorts Thorn to action; but only because Thorn showed up. Maybe it's because there's scarcely any indication that Thorn has changed anything—sickeningly, there's scarcely any indication that Soylent itself is doing anything but making the best of a worst-case world. But maybe it's because Sol was the only man who had not accommodated himself to the end—the last man who seemed to really care—yet ultimately all he was able to do was nothing. That can be how it feels these days. Soylent Green is a masterpiece. And I kind of wish it wasn't.