The year is 2022.
The place is New York City.
The population is 40,000,000.
It happens to every generation. Movies that come out before we are born or when we were too young to see them. Their initial impact are lost on us. Then by the time we see them we’ve already heard about them. Oftimes they become a joke where the punchline is already known. Some of these movies include Psycho, Rosemary”s Baby (which I missed in their initial release), Planet of The Apes, The Exorcist, and Soylent Green. I was lucky to see these when they came out. I remember when the Bay Area town I lived in got a brand new, two screen theater years after the gorgeous theater where I had seen Planet of The Apes and fell in love with movies was turned into a phone company building. The first film the new Plaza Cinemas got was Soylent Green I remember they were giving away some green candy at the snack bar and the box had written on it “Soylent Green. Beware of bones”. It wasn’t till the end of the film that I got the candy joke. Nonetheless I grabbed another piece of the way out.
There are very few science fiction films set in the future, whether dystopian or otherwise, that come as close to where we are now as Soylent Green does. The opening titles of the film (see above video) begin as a slow montage of old photographs showing life at the times (roughly two hundred years ago)…horse drawn carriages and the arduous rigors of farm work and plowing the fields. The photos move forward through the years and as we get to the 1900s the pace of the music and images picks up as we see the plows replaced by tractors, horses give way to automobiles…just a few at first then hundreds then thousands then millions and we see the exhaust emitted by them and the gridlock on the freeways, Industrial smoke stacks towering to the sky spewing clouds of pollution. The music becomes frenetic, the streets of the cities are polluted, the oceans of the world are polluted, the skies are polluted, people wear masks so as not to breathe in the pollution. As the music winds down the cars are not running just piling up, sometimes in heaps on top of each other or abandoned on the roadside. When we finally arrive at 2022 the sky is in a perpetual haze, people sleep where they find room…in cars, on building steps or just in the street. The world is one giant greenhouse…hot, humid, muggy all the time. And people are starving.
As people are lined up at the street markets to get their allotment of Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow, and the new Soylent Green (made from plankton) supplies dry up and riots break out. To control the riots, giant dump trucks called scoops literally scoop up people and dump them in the container. People climb over each other to get out.
There are the few rich, privileged people who live in apartments, heavily guarded, that have hot running water and air conditioning and real food payed for at a hefty price ($50 for a jar of strawberries!). Each apartment comes with its own concubine referred to as “furniture” and serve the tenants living there. One man, Simonson, who serves on the board of Soylent Industries which produces food for the masses in the form of color coded wafers, is murdered one night and Detective Frank Thorne (Charleton Heston) is brought in to investigate and winds up getting involved with Simonson’s furniture (hey, kinky!) played by Leigh Taylor-Young. This serves as the basis of the film’s plot, a basic police procedural for the most part which is a shame given the opportunity the producers had to make a bigger statement about the ways people are treating the planet. Harry Harrison, who wrote the book “Make Room! Make Room!” upon which the film is based, said the police chases and the “furniture” is not what his book was about and said he was only half satisfied with the movie adaptation. According to the Soylent Green Wiki the title of the movie was changed from the book so as to not confuse people who might think it was a movie based on the TV series “Make Room For Daddy“. The movie title is a better one in my opinion.
Detective Thorne lives in a small hovel with Saul Roth played by veteran Hollywood legend Edward G. Robinson who is the film’s one outstanding performance. Saul does research for cases Thorne is working on and he–along with other elderly individuals–are referred to as “Books” for having the only access to the few remaining books that are left. They are the Keepers of Knowledge of the world that used to be. Edward G. Robinson previously appeared with Charleton Heston in The Ten Commandments and on pre-production of Planet of the Apes. Robinson was set to star as Dr. Zaius until he left the production due to being allergic to the ape make up.
When Saul visits the Book Exchange he is shown the oceanographic reports that Soylent Industries didn’t want getting out and killed Simonson over. The reports say all the plankton in the oceans was dead. Further reading strikes Saul to the core. He decides he can no longer live in this terrible place the world has become.
Saul decides to go home, an assisted suicide center where the elderly can die a peaceful death. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Saul lies on a table wearing just a sheet covering and watches movies on an enormous screen of the beauty and grandeur of nature of the Old Earth while classical music plays. It’s a very moving scene and I can still hear the music and remember the mountains and streams and the deer and the sunset. A very emotional scene. What no one knew was as Edward G. Robinson filmed his last scene in the film–his death scene–that it would be the last scene he would ever film and just 12 days after it was shot he died from bladder cancer. Thorne returns home to find Saul’s note telling him to come ASAP. When Thorne arrives he is agog at the wonders of the world humankind destroyed. Saul tries to tell Thorne the truth but the PA goes in and out. Finally he gets on a headset and hears Saul tell him the truth and that Thorne has to find the truth and expose Soylent Industries.
After witnessing the secret of Soylent Green for himself, Thorne sets out to find the one person who could back up his story, a priest who took Simonson’s confession. The priest gets killed and Thorne himself is shot. As a bloodied Thorne is taken off on a stretcher he utters the film’s famous last words.
Like many other eco-horror and science fiction films of the seventies, Soylent Green tries to point out the damages human beings are doing to the world, with varying degrees of success. We knew back then about global warming, climate change, and the depletion of Earth's resources. We knew. And we did nothing. Now, scientists warn us there are less than 20 years before we reach the point of no return. And 20 months from now we will be in the year Soylent Green takes place. And all that is remembered from the movie is one lousy line.
Amazing Science Fiction: Soylent Green (1973)
Writing - 8/108/10
Storyline - 9/109/10
Acting - 8/108/10
Music - 8/108/10
Production - 9/109/10
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