Soylent Green

Soylent Green is Ritz crackers, cream cheese and krab meat!
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1978
Director: 
Richard Fleischer
Starring: 
Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Chuck Connors, Leigh Taylor-Young
The Setup: 
Detective investigates murder in overpopulated and environmentally-damaged world.
Discussion: 

So it's a terrible storm, my plans are cancelled, and I have a nice cold, snowy night at home. There's nothing from Netflix, so it's a perfect night to hit the actual video store and get EXACTLY the right movie. I think just a tiny bit of thought will bring you to the reality that ONLY the dystopian speculative sci-fi of the 70s would fill the bill in this case, and we could also patch a GLARING hole in the purview of this site by including SOYLENT GREEN.

Now many people already know the shocking secret revealed at the end of this film: that Soylent Green is made by spreading cream cheese over crushed Ritz crackers, then adding Krab meat and cocktail sauce. But just forget you know that for a minute and let's see how the rest of the movie holds up.

I had totally forgotten that this movie begins with a two-minute-twenty-second PHOTO ESSAY that begins with the American pioneers and continues to the 70s, where we get a sort of Koyaanisquatsi-lite as we see how pollution and overcrowding are altering the Earth. God, what I would give for almost all movies to begin with photo essays. Can you imagine I Know What You Did Last Summer—the photo essay? The essay here is timed to the music and something about it is just the ESSENCE of the early 70s sincere social concern, and for someone who grew up during that period it's just like a big steaming bowl of macaroni and cheese [with ketchup]. Anyway, at the end we discover that it's now 2022 and the population of New York City, where the story is set, is 40 million!

After that we join Charleton Heston as Robert Thorn with his roommate Edward G. Robnson as Sol, who reminisces about what life was like when there was abundant food, but in 2022 it's just "The greenhouse effect! Burning up all the time!" Heston then goes outside and there are people sleeping all over the stairs and landing! I love that because it is entirely low-budget but is quite effective in portraying a totally changed world. He goes outside and the air is all brown, there are abandoned cars everywhere, and masses of people are just milling about. We are briefly introduced to this woman Shirl playing an extremely primitive video game in a well-appointed apartment, then both she and Thorn are at the food vendor, where he's buying a few vegetables and jars of preserves for $279, and she's picking up the steak she ordered. You see, food is super-rare, only the rich can afford it, and everyone else eats either Soylent Red, Yellow, of their new flavor, Soylent Green, which we are told is made of "high-energy plankton." These are sort of thick crisp wafers in the movie, like rice cakes. But even they are in short supply, and only available on Tuesday. Remember, Tuesday is Soylent Green day. OMG—and I WATCHED this movie on a Tuesday! Holy shit, man, this is starting to freak me out!

Anyway, we see this guy from the poor part of town cross this big dry canal separating the rich from the poor, and break into the house where Shirl and her man [played by Joseph Cotten] live. Cotten is expecting the guy, who has been hired to kill him, and he and the hired killer have a surprisingly existential conversation before Cotten's brains are smashed in [although he doesn't bleed at all during or after]. Soon Thorn is on the scene, but he is much more interested in stealing luxuries outright from the wealthy victim's house than he is in solving the crime. He just brazenly takes a pillowcase off the bed and fills it up, then waltzes right out with it. You gotta admire that. In here he formally meets Shirl, who is "furniture;" a sex toy that comes with the apartment. "I stay for the next tenant," she says, "if he wants me." Thorn takes his stolen goods home and shows then to Sol—he even pinched the steak—and it causes Sol to weep, thinking of the good ol' days when you could just pop over to the Bonanza or Outbreak Steak House when you wanted some sizzlin' fare. I'll bet they don't have those fried onion flower things in the future, either, and I KNOW they're desperately short on tangy dipping sauce.

Next we see a bunch of people hanging outside, waiting in huge lines with plastic jugs to get a small trickle of water. There's something just a little askew about this vision of the future, and that is that it seems that everything is still available, just in vastly smaller quantities. It seems not like whole industries break down, but that they just produce much smaller output. I'm also curious why Thorn gets to live in such a huge apartment, when his whole hallway is filled with people sleeping on top of each other because there's no space. Alas, we will have to fill in the answers in our own minds. So Thorn goes to visit another piece of furniture, played by Paula Kelly, of Cool Breeze and the amazing Trouble Man. She is relaxing at home, eating some strawberry jam, when Thorn stops by. She thinks to hide the bottle of jam, but neglects to hide the spoon, and sure enough, he nabs it. This leads to one of my favorite moments a few minutes later, when Thorn, back at home, pulls the spoon—sticky with strawberry jam—out of his POCKET, where it has been for the past hour or so, and hands it to Sol to sample! Can you imagine? And the movie just brazenly breezes by with it. Why don't you try putting a sticky spoon in your pocket, walking around for a bit, and then see how many people want to try it—even in a desperate dystopian future.

So then Thorn goes over to this furniture party—where all the young women in the building get together and hang, it looks awesome—and demands to see Shirl. He takes her into the other room and just pretty much demands sexual service. You know—regardless of how things may or may not have changed for women in the past decades, at least you can say that it is no longer possible for a guy to demand sexual service from a woman and treat her like a piece of furniture and still be our hero. The amazing thing is that after he screws her—not shown—the movie sort of treats it as though they're now IN LOVE. Then this very effeminate man in red—I think he's the furniture coordinator—and screams at and smacks around the women. Anyway, of course Shirl is now desperate to be with Thorn.

Thorn now goes to some sort of ministry amongst the super poor, who all wear rags like medieval peasants, and talks to this black preacher who knows the truth about what's going on "and it's destroying me." Thorn is then on riot duty [why? So we can set a scene at the food-distribution center] at this open air market where water, cleaning things and various Soylent wafers are dispensed. I love the whole concept that everyone is dirt poor and starving, yet the sellers can just leave their wares out in the middle of this crowded market and no one will try to steal them. They run out of Soylent Green, and the mob gets nasty! Heston announces to the crowd that "The scoops are on their way," and he is NOT referring to the two scoops of raisins in every box of Post Raisin Bran. These huge dump trucks come and scoop people up like so much dirt and toss them in the back! It's crazy, and a little bit ridiculous as you watch it [it's not the most efficient system, and seems easily escapable] but you have to love just the audacity of it.

Then Heston goes back to Paula Kelly's, where he finds Tab, the murdered guy's bodyguard and obvious sinister dude, and beasts the shit out of him. He also beats the shit out of Paula! Again, something our heroes could not do today—and completely gratuitous, even here. He visits Shirl once more as though he has some connection to her—and it was around now I noticed that he's in his 50s and she's not much above 20—and he dumps her, telling her to make the best with the new tenant. He says "You're a hell of a piece of furniture," and she says "Don't talk to me like that," which causes him to grunt once more and leave. Woah, a stinging blow for feminism! We will soon see the new tenant look her over and accept her, essentially telling her that he likes gangbangs and she'll have to be the centerpiece.

SPOILERS > > > Meanwhile, Sol, who has gotten ahold of these two volumes from the Soylent foundation with oceanographic information from Thorn, takes it to the Old Biddy society, and they tell him "the truth." Around this time it becomes painfully apparent that the movie is doing whatever it can to pointedly keep "the truth" from us. Sol seems to take it fairly well, but apparently he's in the depths of despair, and heads off to the suicide center, where he is welcomed by a warm, friendly greeter. This is not too far from the widespread advertising for suicide drugs seen in Children of Men. He goes up to a booth to specify what kind of music he wants, and he says "light classical," which I thought was kind of funny, because anyone who is even slightly into classical music would NOT leave the decision of what music one is going to expire to in the hands of some hourly customer service dude who brushes off Sol's request with "Ha, ha, I'm sure you'll enjoy it." I can just see having something like Mozart in mind, and ending up spending your final minutes boiling with rage because some asshole selected Vivaldi. So the deal is that you agree to die and no longer be a burden on the state, and in exchange you get to listen to music and watch IMAX nature footage—of a world now long gone—until you die. Thorn shows up and talks to Sol, and gets to watch the nature footage even though he hasn't paid. He and Sol exchange tearful "I love you's" while we are supposed to be amazed by the nature footage. The whole sequence is supposed to make us appreciate what we have, but since the movie hasn't shown us anything of the spoiled natural world that lies outside of the city, we have to kind of take their word for it, which is only halfway successful, because to us it just looks like nature footage. In here Sol tells Thorn the secret, and the audio drops out while he's spilling the real beans.

So Thorn then sneaks down behind the back of the facility—which apparently has no guards or security of any kind—and sees guys loading bodies covered in white sheets into garbage trucks. He jumps into one of the trucks and is taken to some distant facility. He gets out, and sees more bodies in white sheets being dumped out, then dropped into this big vat, and the next thing we see is a conveyor belt of Soylent Green wafers—because actually I lied in order to protect you: Soylent Green isn't Ritz crackers and cream cheese, Soylent Green is PEOPLE! The oceans are actually dead, so the whole thing about plankton is a lie. The white sheets covering all of the bodies is a little jarring, as the move has made plain that the government would not have enough money to outfit every corpse in its own spotlessly white sheet—not to mention that they would gum up the meat-processing machinery—but then again, the movie cannot show huge piles of naked corpses being dumped in piles out of trucks without becoming unbearably unpleasant. So that's their solution and… I guess we're to conclude that every wafer of Soylent Green also contains some ground-up sheet in it? Adds fiber I suppose. Then there's this very long and boring shootout and chase, then Thorn reaches the police and finally we have the famous scene where he shouts the secret, and that's that then!

Okay! Many things to say about this movie. This is one of those science-fiction movies where the main content is just the portrait of our future world as a shithole, and the whole murder mystery simply functions as an excuse to move our main character around in that world, so we can see its different aspects. As a vision of the future, it's not too bad, and not too dissimilar to what it looks like we'll be facing in a few years, especially with the global warming and the death of the oceans—just this morning I was reading an article about how only 4% of the world's oceans are undamaged by human activity, and most fish populations will have completely collapsed in 40 years [just the other day was an article on how Salmon populations have collapsed]. So that's all pretty good, but the details of how this would work out seem like they could use a little more thinking through—for example, why are there so many people still living in the city when it obviously sucks so bad? Would they really be just milling around in perfectly clean rags and sleeping peacefully on landings—or would they be at each other's throats? But you know it's hard to fault the movie for this when you realize that the reason we have a much clearer picture of what this world would look like is that we're so much closer to it! So on the score of how good a job they did predicting the future, this movie gets a solid A-, and may be more effective now since the general direction of its prognostications have proven so accurate. Still, it's hard not to think of how much more they could have done and explored if they knew more.

Other aspects of the movie that are interesting is the place of women as "furniture" for the pleasure of men. On the one hand, I like that the movie is pretty harsh in terms of envisioning a future where men have just grown more powerful and their ugly impulses toward women have won out, but it would have been more effective if we had seen a few women who aren't furniture. The only women we see are random people in the crowd scenes, and the old biddies. So I would have liked a little more information on the process here—like if you're young and pretty you can apply to be furniture? And what happens when you get older? I was curious about those things, but I guess they're not in the scope of the movie. I also found it interesting that our hero Thorn is so wholly accepting of the situation, and we're still supposed to admire him. As far as the suicide centers, effective, but would have been much more effective if we knew all along that this was touted as an option. Children of Men did this better by having the ads for suicide kits be ubiquitous from the start, so the idea was always in the background, as opposed to here, where we find out about it when Sol goes.

Another interesting feature of this film is that the real enemy here is despair. We see a few characters who can no longer go on once they know the state the world is in. It's just a little unusual for a movie to portray a certain knowledge as the most damaging blow to one's will to go on. It's too bad that the movie portrays "the secret" as the primary focus of interest here, because this is really only the icing on the cake, and the rest of the very good and effective future forecasting material is given short shrift.
< < < SPOILERS END

The credits list the main cast and then say "And the furniture girls…" The trailer on the disc is INSANE and demands to be seen. It repeatedly says "What! Is! The secret! Of! Soylent! Green!" while telling the ENTIRE story, but for the final revelation. I mean—it even flat out TELLS you about a main character's late-film demise! Again, more evidence that the only thing that really mattered to the producers was the secret. The final third of the trailer takes on a hysterical "YOU ARE THERE as the riot police scoop up people in dumptucks!" tone. It's too bad—this movie is in every way ripe for a remake, in which they could REALLY expand on the many aspects just hinted at here—but they would have to get away from centering the entire thing around the secret.

Overall, pretty good 70s dystopian sci-fi that has a lot to offer other than revelation of "the secret." If you've never seen it, but think you don't need to because you already know what the deal is, I think you'll be surprised that this movie has a lot more to offer. If you have seen it—yeah, you don't really need to see it again, but if you do, it still goes down smooth.

Should you watch it: 

If you like mainstream 70s sci-fi dystopian movies—this is definitely one of the heavy-hitters!

Comments

Good review, I'll add a few trivia points:
Shirl goes shopping with the bodyguard (Chuck Connors) not Thorn.
Thorn probably had a room because he's with the police, and his "book" Sol stays there too.
Thorn was probably put on riot duty as punishment for not signing a closure to the case.
It would also be easier to murder him in a crowded setting.
This was the last movie Edward G. Robinson appeared in and he died (cancer) about 10 days after it was completed.
Overall, this movie really grew on me as the theme of corporate lies, power, and control is certainly relevant today.
I especially liked the suicide parlor scenes, and feel that such places should be offered now, as a humane alternative to living like human cattle.
In any case, I enjoyed the review and would recommend the movie.

I, too, have often thought about the idea of the suicide parlor becoming more realistic, but especially by the aspect of watching the nature footage. As I read articles about climate change and what is coming, it seems ever-more realistic to imagine future generations watching footage of nature as we knew it in wonder...