Edward G. Robinson marked his 101st and final performance with Soylent Green (1973) a depressingly dystopian view of the future where population overcrowding and a shortage of natural resources have wrecked society with mob rule and where people have become the prime ingredient in the most readily renewable food source. The actor should have retired at an even hundred. Although this apocalyptic future forecast proved wildly popular and has since acquired a solid following as an iconic 70s science fiction movie in my estimation Soylent Green is two hours of my life that I can never get back.
Given the run of MGM's dilapidated back lot to shoot his film director Richard Fleischer transforms Harry Harrison's novel 'Make Room! Make Room! into something of a quirky oddity, a rummage sale in which some truly outstanding old time talent is fed through the meat grinder (both figuratively and literally). As if any more proof were needed that the golden age of movies was over this film, at least in retrospect, seems to relish the exploitation of its thespians; Robinson, Joseph Cotten and Charlton Heston in a plot riddled by stick figure characterizations and some truly lousy screenwriting.
Stanley R. Greenberg's screenplay is a mishmash of episodic events that Heston traipses through blindfolded. Trapped in a performance that is somewhere in the actor's repertoire between Ben-Hur (1959) and Planet of the Apes (1968), Heston is Robert Thorn, an insolent New York City cop whose 'Don't Bogart that can, man!' beatnik attitude is an ill fit at best. Thorn rooms in a dingy apartment with Solomon 'Sol' Roth (Robinson); a bookworm forced to seek out knowledge from the ramshackle remains of the public library. After an untouchable elite, William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotten) is found bludgeoned to death in his trendy apartment he shares with 23 year old concubine, Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), Thorn assumes responsibility for solving the case.
While Sol delves deeper into the mystery of soylent green, Thorn decides to take advantage of Shirl - whom he nicknames 'furniture' because she just goes with whoever is occupying the apartment. Thorn then decides that Simonson's ex-body guard, Tab Fielding (Chuck Connors) is a likely suspect. Truth be told, Thorn does not care much one way or the other who killed Simonson. He just wants to find a scapegoat.
The film plays fast and loose with the then fashionable 'all cops are pigs' mentality that probably had rioters from Detroit cheering in the isle. As the mindless masses clamor for more soylent green they are driven back by knight stick toting police who use dump trucks to scoop up looters and carry them off - presumably to jail, though more than likely to a processing plant beyond city limits where they will become 'soylent green' for the rest of society. During this riot, Thorn is nearly murdered by Simonson's assassin who is quickly dispatched when the heavy forks from one of the dump trucks crush him to death. Thorn's next port of call is Tab's girlfriend, Martha (Paula Kelly), a sort of 'Foxy Brown' meets Sharon Tate sex vixen whom Thorn assaults after Tab attacks him.
Meanwhile, having learned the true ingredients of soylent green, Sol decides that he has lived too long and stumbles to his local government assisted suicide center to end it all. He is given a toxic chemical to drink before being placed in a containment room where Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony blares from loud speakers in front of a Cinerama-styled travelogue depicting bucolic images of a world that no longer exists. Thorn arrives too late to save his friend, but Sol confesses with his dying breath that the main ingredient in soylent green is people.
Unable to accept the truth, Thorn secretly follows Sol's body to a waste disposal truck that is driven to the processing plant where soylent green is being made. After battling a few of the plant's technicians, Thorn retreats to an overcrowded church to escape the secret police out to silence him. He is shot, wounded and carried away screaming "It's people!" as his superior, Lieutenant Hatcher (Brock Peters) looks on.
Soylent Green is a mid to low budget potboiler at best. While the novel takes place in 1999 the film is set a bit further down the road in 2025. Yet the decor, clothes, vehicles and hairstyles are straight out of 1970s. This limited imagination in set design works if we stretch our own imaginations to believe that the world of the past broke down somewhere during 1973 or shortly thereafter, rendering things like fashion inconsequential to the masses for nearly 50 years. But what are we to make of Simonson's apartment? He is the head of the Soylent Conglomerate, a man of affluence and luxury. He can afford anything, yet he chooses to live in 2025 as a retrofitted world of leisure suits and bellbottoms, his penthouse derived from that cookie cutter, globular postmodern extremist view of architecture that has since dated quite badly. So much for the future!
The book makes mention of soylent steaks that would have made the cannibalism references in the film much more frightening; especially if the crowds in the market had stormed in to devour raw meat that we are to presume was cut from their own brethren. Mmm...yummy! Unfortunately, the film converts its human waste to tiny emerald-colored melba-toast sized squares called soylent green, a fabrication of screenwriter Greenberg's limited imagination that all but diffuses any thoughts about cannibalism. After all, how does a by-product of human flesh become a cracker?
I realize I am in the minority in my utter distaste for this film (no pun intended) but there it is. I think it's silly, ridiculous and very pedestrian in its execution. It isn't that the narrative is too gruesome. In fact, I think it's too tame. But the acting is way over the top, particularly Heston who plays Thorn as though he just might believe he can still part the Red Sea with a wave of his hand. The final indignation foisted onto the audience is the fight sequences, lacking in any kinetic energy to be believed.
There is no tension to the film as a whole, no escalation of the supposed shock value, and worse still, no style. Cinematographer Richard H. Kline shoots strictly for footage that is, in this case, flat, boring and frankly more of a dinosaur when viewed today than it surely must have seemed when the film debuted. Unlike other vintage sci-fi classics from this period; Planet of the Apes (1968) or even the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Soylent Green does not hold up at all! In the end, we are left with a badly composed, tragically executed movie that is colossally mundane at best.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray is much improved but still strangely lacking. Colors, though refined, rarely pop. Fine detail is wanting, particularly during night scenes. Flesh tones seem unnaturally orange. There are also minor hints of color fading during a few key sequences. Overall, this is a just above average transfer with no real complaints but also, no great moments of awe-inspiring imagery. The audio remains faithful to the original 2.0 Dolby. Dialogue is strident and forward sounding at best. Extras include the same audio commentary from Fleischer as was previously available on the DVD. There's also a vintage 'making of' and a very brief tribute to Edward G. Robinson. Ho-hum…and moving on.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)