Posts Tagged ‘soylent green’

Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973)

20 January 2009

Ecological dystopia (loosely) adapted from Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966). Charlton Heston needs a chapter to himself as veteran of two Planet of the Apes films, The Omega Man (Sagal, 1971) and Earthquake (Robson, 1974). Here he is Thorn, a policeman in an overcrowded, near-future Manhattan, where people are forced to sleep on staircases of tenements for want of a better habitat. Crops and lifestock have all but failed thanks to pollution, with the population fed on various products of the Soylent company. (Soy – soya; lent – lentils.) With the brutal murder of wealthy Simonson (Joseph Cotten), Thorn finds a case that threatens to get to the heart of a starving and doomed society.

There are plenty of good world-building touches – an opening montage offers a technological history of the city from pioneer to contemporary times, the designated and rentable prostitute/lovers are referred to (in suitably sexist terms) as furniture and rioters are scooped up by JCB-like vehicles. Special effects seem to be kept to a minimum – mostly matte shots of the city, and a greenish fog to suggest pollution.

Thorn feels at times like an earlier version of Deckard in Blade Runner (Scott 1982); a detective character of course is able to visit all levels of society from the dregs to the upper echelons, and acts conveniently as a moral barometer. As he investigates, so we the audience learn about his world. On the other hand, it is his cohabitee, Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson in his 101st and final role) who first discovers the truth about the supposedly plankton-based soylent green. This is enough for him to decide he no longer wants to live, and commits suicide.

And what to make of Sol? He has memories of the old days, when food was real, and is dispirited by the dystopia he finds himself in. Sol – sun, wisdom of Solomon – with Roth it feels Jewish in origin (a reference to Ashkenazi Jews?), which might make the suicide even more horrific. He’s referred to as a book – a sort of police researcher, presumably a (euphemistic?) term like furniture. A bells rings from somewhere – am I thinking of Shepherd Book from Firefly? The most curious thing is the comments from both Sol and Thorn that they love each other – I suspect Thorn’s relationship with Simonson’s furniture, Shirl Leigh (Leigh Taylor-Young), is there in least at part to alibi Thorn against suspicions of homosexuality. I don’t read this as father and son though.

And so the final, highly telegraphed, climactic revelation is that Soylent Green is people. This is the ultimate ecological recycling, ensuring that nobody goes to waste. This works slightly better than humans as Duracells (in The Matrix trilogy), but surely runs into loss of energy from the equation rather quickly. Let’s take it as a metaphor for consumption – and no one ever complains that Swift’s A Modest Proposal would have a similar failure – rather than a serious proposal. It’s the 1970’s ending – there’s no guarantee that the truth will out, as everyone else who has discovered it has been killed off.

Harrison gave it 50% – the acting and production was impressive, despite shoddy behaviour towards him by MGM and what he perceived as a stupid script with a dreadful title.

Harrison, Harry, “A Cannibalized Novel Becomes Soylent Green“, in: Danny Peary, ed. Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies: The Future According to Science Fiction Cinia, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984, pp. 143-146.

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