Tuesday 18 June 2013

Movie Review: Soylent Green (1973)

A dark imagining of a grim future, Soylent Green is science fiction at its best: alarming, artistic, astute and yet neither absurd nor artificial.

It's the year 2022, and in an overpopulated and overheated planet, New York City is crammed with 40 million people. For the masses, food and water are hard to find, and the Soylent Corporation controls much of the food supply by providing pre-packaged dried meals. The latest version, Soylent Green, is purportedly harvested from ocean plankton, but is in short supply. Meanwhile, the rich live in walled-off compounds and enjoy luxuries including fresh fruits, wine, and running water.

When William Simonson (Joseph Cotten), a member of the elite, is found bludgeoned to death in his swanky apartment, detective Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) investigates, with help from his side-kick, old timer Solomon Roth (Edward G. Robinson). Thorn learns that Simonson was a director of Soylent, and that Simonson's bodyguard Fielding (Chuck Connors) may be an accomplice in the murder. Thorn also gets romantically involved with Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), Simonson's live-in sex pet. The more Roth digs into the Soylent Corporation, the less he likes it, and the closer he and Thorn get to uncovering a devastating secret.

Based on the 1966 science fiction novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, Soylent Green is packed with thought provoking, and often disturbing, ideas. New York is overcrowded to the point of people sprawled on every building staircase. Armed civilians guard each landing to separate the desperate from the more desperate.  "Scoops" are used for crowd control. A despondent Roth eventually decides to go "home", where a resplendent visual journey into Earth's past awaits. Shirl is a sex slave referred to as "furniture" and provided by the apartment building for the pleasure of the rich residents. And mysterious researchers known as "The Exchange" are perhaps the last hope for intellectual curiosity.

With an efficient running time of less than 100 minutes, director Richard Fleischer does not allow a dull moment to intrude into Soylent Green, and keeps both the action and the process of discovery boiling at the temperature of a sweltering New York. The film is a journey into an intimidating dystopia, made more chilling by its inherent feasibility. The Stanley R. Greenberg screenplay combines three potential horrors: overpopulation, the greenhouse effect, and unfettered corporate dominance, and the resulting nightmare is not easy to dismiss, adding to the movie's power.

The three central characters are drawn with handsome details. Thorn is not beyond helping himself to a bagful of luxuries in Simonson's apartment, even as the dead body is still oozing blood. Roth is reaching the bottom of his reservoir of motivation, the memories of the good old days calling him more strongly to move along. Shirl is not in the least bit perturbed by her profession, the death of Simonson, or Thorn's lust. She's just worried that her next master may not like her, which may jeopardize her life in the lap of luxury. Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson (in his last role) and Leigh Taylor-Young create three memorable, unpredictable people, doing what they can to navigate an ugly future.

In a twin-peaked climax, Soylent Green ends with Roth making a drastic decision and Thorn arriving at a shocking realization. Even within a hopelessly bleak future, some things can yet prove to be a lot worse than they seem.

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