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Soylent Green

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Soylent Green

Starring: Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young
Director: Richard Fleischer
Rated: PG
RunTime: 97 Minutes
Release Date: May 1973
Genres: Action, Cult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

*Also starring: Chuck Connors, Joseph Cotten, Brock Peters, Edward G. Robinson, Paula Kelly, Whit Bissell, Mike Henry, Dick Van Patten

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

Science fiction as a genre was often belittled as "escapist" by cultural establishment. However, judging by the way science fiction appeared in late 1960s and early 1970s, that genre was anything but escapist. Instead of allowing viewers to indulge themselves in optimistic visions of another worlds and thus forget depressing reality, Hollywood science fiction films of pre-Lucas era often did quite the opposite - visions of the future were such that the turbulent and often bleak 1970s reality looked good in comparison. Interestingly enough, many of such films not only withstood the test time but also became indisputable classics of the genre. One of such films is SOYLENT GREEN, directed in 1973 by Richard Fleischer.

The plot of the film is based on the novel MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! by Harry Harrison and set in New York in the year 2022 AD As a result of decades of industrial pollution, greenhouse effect caused constant heatwave and mass extinction of plants and animals. Humans, on the other hand, continue to grow in numbers and New York has population of 40 million - mostly utterly impoverished people forced to sleep in crammed stairways and dependant on synthetic food called "Soylent". Tiny minority of rich and powerful people, on the other hand, can afford such luxuries as running water, strawberries and "furniture" in the form of sex slaves that come with such luxurious apartments. William R. Simonson (played by Joseph Cotton), one of directors of Soylent Corporation, belongs to such privileged group until he is killed in his apartment, presumably by a burglar. Murder investigation is conducted by Thorn (played by Charlton Heston), police detective who lives in a tiny apartment with his research assistant a.k.a. "Book" Sol Roth (played by Edward G. Robinson), an old man who entertains him with the stories about the time when the Earth used to be green. Unlike his superiors who want to wrap up the case quickly, Thorn decides to investigate further, convinced that Simonson was the target of well-planned assassination. His decision is partially motivated by the desire to indulge himself, at least temporarily, in the privileged lifestyle and also because he is attracted to Shirl (played by Leigh Taylor-Young), Simonson's "furniture". When Thorn's investigation begins to bring results and draws him closer to the reason behind Simonson's murder, policeman himself becomes the target of assassins.

Today, in a world of CGI and rapidly changing technology, we are quite accustomed to the fact that science fiction films might start looking dated only a year or two after the initial release. SOYLENT GREEN was made almost three decades ago, yet it seems like a movie that could be made today. The only reason to treat SOYLENT GREEN as "dated" is in the fact that the bleak future depicted in it becomes less certain with each passing year. By the year 2022 Earth and its population might indeed be in worse shape than they were in 1973, yet the pollution, global warming, overpopulation and other apocalyptic trends didn't materialise in dimensions sufficient to justify bleak visions of the film. So, Harry Harrison (who wasn't exactly happy with the film), screenwriter Stanley R. Greenberg and director Fleischer got it wrong. But that doesn't mean that they failed to create convincing and powerful vision of the future that even might become reality at some date later than indicated in the film.

Like many other dystopic science fiction films of 1970s and early 1980s, SOYLENT GREEN doesn't create futuristic atmosphere by presenting technology that doesn't exist in present, but relies instead on the lack of present-day technology that should indicate lower standards of living and decay of civilisation. In SOYLENT GREEN industrial, technological and cultural decay is presented in convincing fashion, through the details of people's every day life. Increased heat and humidity in the air through simple but effective camera techniques in outdoors scenes. Lack of trees means that there are no new books, and energy shortage mandates that only trucks can be used for transport instead of private-owned cars. Lack of living space means the lack of privacy and the lack of respect for individuals - when they die, they are disposed of instead of being buried, and all their belongings, concubines included, are about to be plundered without any question asked. In overpopulated society human life is cheap, and gun battles on overcrowded streets are bound to result with innocent people being killed by stray bullets. Those who can't deal with pressures of everyday life are publicly encouraged to end it through euthanasia. All this is presented without any semblance of moralistic outrage, and some viewers can come to the conclusion that moralistic relativism is the only way a society can function under those conditions.

Because of this, otherwise great script loses much of its intended impact in the end. When the great secret is revealed at the end, protagonist's last words (the most quoted element of the film) are not directed to the people of 2022, but to the audience of 1973. His warning, however, is going to miss the mark in the context of his film. The outrage he is hoping to create simply won't happen in the impoverished world of 2022, which has lowered its moral standards to almost sub-human levels. Yet, the film makes a nice contrast between savage amorality of the world and humanism of the protagonist, indicated in memorable scenes of interaction with people he loves - his "book" and his new girlfriend.

Protagonist was played by Charlton Heston, one of greatest actors of American cinema. Same as in PLANET OF THE APES and OMEGA MAN - two other science fiction classics of the period - Heston brings humane dimension to the otherwise alien or reprehensible world through the character of tragic hero. His performance was, however, overshadowed by another acting giant - Edward G. Robinson. His character, which had to put the dark future world in the context of our present day, gave extra humanism to the film through the strength of Robinson's performance. Said performance, and especially the final scene, becomes even more powerful when we know that the role of Sol was Robinson's final appearance on the film. Other actors did solid job - Chuck Connors was good as villain, and Leigh Taylor-Young was more than pretty face. Fleischer directed this film with great skill, showing his abilities both in dramatic and action scenes. Unfortunately, original musical score by Fred Myrow is not as good as this film should deserve, but this is compensated with the good use of Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven in some very powerful scenes.

All in all, SOYLENT GREEN truly deserved its reputation of science fiction classic. As a science fiction film that relies more on viewers' intelligence than special effects, it represents something that is sorely missed in today's Hollywood. And we should only hope that its reputation wouldn't be diminished with uninspired remake like it had happened with many other great movies from that era.

Copyright 2001 Dragan Antulov

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