“Soon they’ll be breeding us like cattle! You’ve got to warn everyone and tell them!
Soylent green is made of people! You’ve got to tell them! Soylent green is people!”
– Police Detective Thorn
If you read the majority of modern reviews regarding this film, you probably will notice that most of them focus on how poorly this film has aged or that many of its prophetic statements have not come to fruition at the turn of the century. Interestingly, these reviews mask an almost universal fear, a fear that perhaps we are closer than we would like to admit to a world in which ‘scoops’ are used for crowd control, people sleep in automobiles and on stairwells, and only the rich can afford luxuries such as vegetables and running tap water.
Based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, Soylent Green, given its due, remains an unsettling vision of a future America. While it’s true that scoops are not used for riot control, countries across the world do use truck-mounted water canons and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. While it’s true apartments do not as yet come with ‘furniture’ (live-in concubines who sell their bodies in exchange for safety and luxury), we do have television shows that have women compete to become the furniture of some millionaire male. And while books are still produced, who could have foreseen electronic publishing and the proliferation of “interspeak,” which further undermines the written word with abbreviations such as ‘ur’ replacing ‘your’ and ‘lol’ replacing ‘laughing out loud’?
Taken in such context, Soylent Green becomes a chilling and disturbing film. However, what undermines Soylent Green – knocking it down from a 10 to an 8 rating – is the cannibalism theme. Harry Harrison’s principal problem with the film complements mine: the film could have addressed more of the environmental elements that are ripping Soylent Green‘s America apart, but instead the movie goes for a simple ‘scare tactic’ that, while evoking an initial ghastly response, crumbles given the film’s atmosphere.
In Harrison’s novel, ‘soylent green’ is a combination of soybeans (the soy) and lentils (the lent), not people. There are two themes at work in the book. The first is humanity’s destruction of the environment, which serves as the book’s cautionary component. And the second – and this element is the most disturbing -is humanity’s apathy toward its own self-destruction, which serves as a ‘wakeup call’ to readers.
To his credit, director Richard Fleischer (Conan The Destroyer, The Vikings, and the melon opus Mr Majestyk) fully understands both themes. The opening montage of the film illustrates how the industrial revolution at first yielded prosperity but has slowly taken its toll upon the environment under an almost unstoppable momentum. There are the characters of Thorn (Charlton Heston) and ‘Book’ Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), whose conversations show that humanity’s cynicism often overwhelms humanity’s inherent need to remember better times. The following is one of several exchanges:
Thorn: “I know, Sol, you’ve told me a hundred times before – people were better, the world was better…”
Sol Roth: “Bah – people were always lousy. But there was a world, once.”
Sol Roth: “I was there, I can prove it! When I was a kid, you could buy meat anywhere! Eggs, they had! Real butter! Not this… crap!”
Sol Roth: “How did we come to this?”
Thorn: “C’mon. We’re doing fine.”
Sol Roth: “We’re doing lousy!”
Another plot device Fleischer uses to convey humanity’s duality is the rampant corruption displayed throughout the film. Thorn scavenges what he can from the crime scenes, collecting the booty in a pillowcase much like a traditional burglar, and then distributes ‘cuts’ to his boss Lieutenant Hatcher (Brock Peters) and the waste-disposal unit (in the film, bodies are taken to waste-disposal plants, where they are converted to ‘soylent green’). The scenes are nonchalant, not once calling attention to themselves and, although as viewers we may take notice, for the characters corruption has become part of daily life (much like it has for much of corporate America, unfortunately).
By exploring this duality, Fleischer in a way sabotages the film’s most-remembered element: soylent green is people. The desperation of humanity to survive, as evidenced throughout the film, demonstrates that humanity probably will not care what soylent green is made of – all the people care about is that there is enough of it to go around. Even Fleischer understands this. During the scene in which Thorn screams out the film’s most-remembered lines, the crowd around him stands idle and dumbfounded. Perhaps this is Fleischer’s nod to the audience that, although as viewers we may be appalled at the revelation, the people living in the world of Soylent Green are not.
Although it is true that Soylent Green‘s set decorations and costumes have not aged well, this in no way detracts from the movie-watching experience. Yes, the polyester clothing is distracting, as are some of the technological devices, among them the simple video game Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young) is playing. It is interesting to note that the game ‘Computer Space’, was developed by Nolan Bushnell, who later founded Atari and designed the addictive Pong. But these distractions aside, Soylent Green‘s themes remain valid.
The latest DVD of Soylent Green comes with several extras, such as commentary by Fleischer and Leigh Taylor-Young (both of whom have some interesting comments), the original theatrical trailer, a featurette A Look At The World Of Soylent Green (a weak production), a short film that chronicles MGM’s tribute to Edward G. Robinson’s 101st film, and an essay Charlton Heston: Science Fiction Legend. The film is presented in widescreen anamorphic.