Soylent Green (1973), Dir. Richard Fleischer
Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young and Edward G. Robinson.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now:
Because I know the ending. You know the ending. Everyone knows the ending. Soylent Green is people, right? What's the point? Did I just save myself two hours?
So, Soylent Green is people, but Charlton Heston doesn't know that yet because that's what the entire movie is about. Of course, no one believes him and he's dragged off by the authorities to become some Soylent Green himself in a moment of bleak, 1970s nihilism.
Psst...did you know that Soylent Green is people! It is! People are eating people but they don't know it because they don't know that Soylent Green is people! Secret government supported cannibalism! Oh my God, right?
I know this. You know this. Your mother knows this. Charlton Heston does not know this, so he spends two hours wandering around a dystopic Los Angeles trying to solve a murder that leads to a conspiracy that leads him to Soylent Green (which is people), the only food widely available in this hellhole of a future. It's a procedural. Think All the President's Men meets Blade Runner but not nearly as good as that sounds. Because that sounds awesome. Soylent Green is not awesome, mainly because the entire movie is a mystery and we already know the ending and we just chew our fingernails and play with the DVD remote while Charlton Heston takes 120 minutes trying to catch up.
Spoilers. Soylent Green is people.
Soylent Green is about as good of a film as I was expecting it to be, but I'll give it this: it's a helluva lot more interesting than I thought it was going to be. What surprised me the most is how knowing the infamous twist ending did nothing to hinder my enjoyment of the film. Soylent Green being made out of processed human parts is not a "Oh-My-God-Whatta-Twist!" moment, but a thematic inevitability.
This is not a movie about a conspiracy...that's surface level stuff. This is a movie about the human race deciding to live on in a world that they've ruined through sheer greed and stupidity. This is a movie about how each new generation puts up with additional horror and less food and an increasingly fascist government because they weren't around before the whole planet went to hell. As far as they're concerned, this is normal. This is life. This is the status quo.
Soylent Green is not the story of Charlton Heston learning that Soylent Green is people. Soylent Green is the story of Charlton Heston learning that things were once good and we f*cked it up and while it's too late to turn things around, it's not too late to bring back the basic building blocks that makes human beings worth saving: honesty, truth and decency.
Of course this is all subtext as we watch Heston's thuggish police detective Thorn intimidate, punch, stab and shoot his way through an overcrowded nightmare-future Los Angeles, trying to solve the murder of the head of the Soylent corporation. Everyone else thinks it was a bungled burglary. Thorn knows it was an assassination. And after he's looted the house of its valuable goods, he's going to find out who did it, damn it!
But take a look at what Thorn chooses to loot. A bar of soap. Paper. Pencils. Bourbon. Real meat. When his elderly roommate Sol (Edward G. Robinson) lays his eyes on these items, it's akin to a religious experience. Unlike Thorn, he remembers a time when there were trees. He remembers a time when there were animals. He remembers a time when you didn't have to wait all day in line for a gallon of water and you didn't have to peddle a stationary bike to power your home's generator and there weren't hundreds of homeless people asleep on the stairs in your building.
Like Peter Ustinov in Logan's Run, Robinson is the heart of this movie. Sure, we spend most of the time following Thorn around and about, but it's Heston doing his Heston thing: he looks tough, he acts tough and he performs for the cheap seats. This is Heston as you've seen Heston before, totally watchable and charismatic, but definitely not what I'd call a great actor. Robinson, though, he's the guy you find yourself invested in. He's the guy who encapsulates the soul of the movie. There's a reason Edward G. Robinson is a legend and it's all evident here. Here's a man who has every reason to be defeated by the world, but he keeps on living, keeps on fighting and in the end, he goes out on his own terms. I won't reveal his ultimate fate, mainly because it's the best scene in the movie, but it's a decision that should provoke a great discussion. Is it a brave action? Is it the act of a coward? Does the epiphany it bring Thorn worth it?
Truth be told, I'm not sure. Soylent Green gives you a lot to chew on.
That's why I wish it was a better movie.
Soylent Green is crying out for a director that's a real world builder. It needs someone like Ridley Scott, who can build a convincing science fiction world and keep in convincing and tonally consistent. Richard Fleischer was a more-than-competent director (his lengthy filmography is littered with all kinds of interesting, varied movies), but I don't think he was any kind of visionary. I get the impression that he knew he had something special here and he knew what needed to be said, but he just didn't have the raw nerve to get it right.
There are times when this version of Los Angeles feels startlingly real, like the food riot sequence, where Thorn is targeted for assassination in the middle of a crowd of starving people. Sure, the garbage trucks that scoop up and collect rioters are a little silly and impractical, but they're also terrifying. They belong in this world.
There are other moments that work. The scene where Thorn investigates a church and finds a dead woman on the steps, her young daughter strapped her wrist and weeping comes to mind. Unfortunately, much of the movie doesn't contain this much dread and misery. Much of the time, it feels like we're looking at some decent sets or a cleverly dressed city street. Not enough of it feels real. It just feels adequate.
The boulder strapped to the film's ankle is the romantic subplot, which finds Thorn falling in love with the "furniture," i.e., the landlord-supplied sex slave, of the initial murder victim. This doesn't work for two reasons:
1. It feels tacked on, like someone at the studio said "We need a lady in there. Make sure she shows her cleavage a lot!" Her relationship with Thorn brings nothing to the movie and the pace slows to a crawl when she's on screen.
2. Heston's Thorn is totally gay. Seriously. The famously right-wing Heston may not have realized it, the studio may not have realized it and maybe Fleischer didn't even realize it, but Thorn bats for the other team in a big way. Allow me to explain. He lives with his "roommate," Sol. They never refer to each other outside of the house. They prepare meals for each other. They speak intimately with each other about their personal feelings. They say "I love you" un-ironically on more than one occasion. And the capper: Heston wears a neckerchief in every seen of the movie. See below.
Proof. Detective Thorn is totally gay. Not there's anything wrong with that. Just an observation.
Like a lot of '70s science fiction, Soylent Green makes up for its flaws by being fascinating and thoughtful and intelligent. This type of sci-fi would reach its apex with Blade Runner (which combines the intellect of a '70s film with the amazing technology of later films) and then everything would go downhill. As much as I love laser gunfights and hovercar chases, I miss the humanity of these films.
Hey, so Soylent Green IS people. Zing!
(The next entry will be three hours long, paced like a snail and will cause my brain to break in half while trying to figure it out.)
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