The year 2022 is only nine years away, and though things might be somewhat bleak right now, it still seems unlikely, nay, impossible that they can become as hopeless as the future predicted by Richard Fleischer's 1973 science-fiction classic, 'Soylent Green'. Set in an overpopulated, over-polluted, over-everything world where amenities are sparse and the only food source is derived from "plankton", Fleischer's vision of New York is haunting, desolate, and yet somehow unsatisfying -- much like his film.
'Soylent Green' stars Charlton Heston as Detective Thorn, a tough-and-tumble New York Police Detective who, with the aid of a crusty but loveable old man named Sol Roth (played brilliantly by Edward G. Robinson), attempts to solve the murder of William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotton), a board-member for a powerful conglomeration that produces "Soylent", the only foodstuffs still available to the overpopulated Earth. As Thorn and Sol dig deeper into the death of Simonson, they discover -- much to their horror -- that not only has Thorn been marked for death by the same people who assassinated Simonson, but that the "secret ingredient" in Soylent Green is far more disturbing than either could have imagined.
'Soylent Green' is an interesting and fun film -- that is, assuming one does not delve too deeply into the logic of the society presented to them (more about that later). Heston is, of course, well-known for playing invincible and heroic characters, and as such, its difficult s to sympathize with his performance as Detective Thorn at times. However, the scenes he shares with a terminal ill Robinson (Robinson, who had cancer at the time of the film, died only days after completing the film) brings out a level of vulnerability and humility in Heston that renders him incredibly human and sympathetic, and adds a great deal of depth to his performance as Thorn. Though not a perfect performance, it is still Charlton Heston's most complex and interesting role, and a breath of fresh air compared to most of the other roles he's now well-known for playing.
By contrast, Heston's costar Edward G. Robinson could not have given a better final performance. Not only is his role in 'Soylent Green' his last role ever, but also remains one of his best and most memorable. An old man -- old enough to remember when life on earth was not a living hellscape of overpopulation and pollution -- Robinson's performance is one tempered equally with pathos and scorn. Though he hates what the world has become, he does not surrender to it and give up in the face of destruction -- that is until he learns about the truth behind "Soylent Green" and what goes into its creation. Although Robinson will perhaps always be remembered for his tough-guy gangster roles, 'Soylent Green' serves as proof that Robinson was far more talented and multi-dimensional as an actor than a lot of audiences give him credit for, and his swan-song performance is, more or less, the saving grace of Fleischer's film.
But despite Heston's amiable acting and Robinson's memorable performance and Fleischer's keen eye for editing and pacing, 'Soylent Green' starts to break down as a story when one examines the world that is presented to us -- and once these flaws come to the forefront of one's mind, it's a bit difficult to take what we see on screen too seriously, which is a problem since 'Soylent Green' is meant to be taken seriously.
In the world of 'Soylent Green', the earth has been destroyed by pollution and greenhouse gases, with mechanical transportation being brought to a screeching halt due to lack of fossil fuels. We learn that most of the farmland has been abandoned because the soil no longer produces crops, and that the cities where people now congregate have become almost suffocatingly overpopulated by a jobless citizenry and, as a result, have lead to constant riots that are dealt with severely by a small, over-worked police force.
Right. Let's take a deeper look at all that, shall we? If the cities are so overcrowded that people have been forced to live in abandoned cars and empty subway stations, why not have some of them move out to all those abandoned farms that no longer grow food since clearly the farmers are using them anymore? Also, if most of the people in the city are jobless, and the police force meant to keep them in control has been stretched thin due to small numbers, well, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the government could cut unemployment down by offering some of those police jobs to the jobless -- after all, it's not like the government in 'Soylent Green' has high standards when it comes to hiring police officers what with a lot of them being corrupt and all. Also, if food is so scarce that the only edible substance left is plankton, how are so many people still alive? Shouldn't most of the population have died from starvation or disease by the time the story occurs? Also, hasn't history taught us that as industrialization increases, childbirths go down because families no longer need as many children to support themselves as they used to since they no longer live on farms?
And so on and so on. And the whole "It's just a movie" argument doesn't hold water, particularly because this is a science-fiction film. Science-fiction is meant to present us with worlds that are both fantastic and at least somewhat plausible -- that's the rule, that's the whole point of science-fiction! But to call Fleischer's film a "failure" would be too harsh and utterly inaccurate. Yes, the illogical nature of the fictional society is a bit too obvious to put out of one's mind at times, but it's not impossible -- and when one does put the illogical out of their mind and focuses on the performances and mystery, Fleischer's film manages to keep its head above water most of the time and presents us with a fascinating and, at times, suspenseful tale.
Fleischer's 'Soylent Green' is by no means perfect, but it is a must-see cinematic classic, and it's definitely far more intelligent and thought-provoking than a lot of other science-fiction crud to come out of the same era, with a cast that won't disappoint you and a story that at least entertains and captivates its audience, even if it is a little implausible at times.
Find the nearest Blockbuster near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.