Soylent Green (1973) [1973 Week]

Soylent Green is one of those sci-fi-classics where people rarely talk about the actual movie and much more about its famous final line of dialogue. The movie is really fascinating because it is such a dark, extremely dystopian future that is relentless in its hopelessness. It tries to alarm people at the time, to avoid this future, but then again, the way people act here, you couldn’t believe that anyone is able to change or do anything good. I really liked this dark atmosphere, the special effects and some of the ideas about the future. The movie is set in 2022, so there is some of that fun of how much the movie is wrong about the future. And how much it is right. It is not a perfect movie at all, the plot doesn’t really move forward much and is obviously just there to reach the shocking conclusion. The misogyny is almost unbearable (more on that below) and Charlton Heston does not play a very appealing main character. But there is Edward G. Robinson’s amazing final performance and many fascinating little details that keep you entertained.

The movie opens with a montage that attempts to show us the consequences of our ways, of pollution and overpopulation. It is fascinating to watch as still images add up to more and more people, and more and more pollution, highways, crowded cities, mountains of trash. What’s weird about it is that it begins with a black&white photograph of, well, people standing around in the 1800s, followed by a couple of more pictures of people at lakes, sitting on a rock. Is that supposed to be “the good old time”? It jumps to mass production and metropolitan cities really quick, lacking any kind of explanation and boiling down to “things got really bad, people, so watch out!” We end up in the year 2022 in New York City that now has a population of 40,000,000. The movie’s main problems for the future are overpopulation and the (as the movie claims) resulting lack of food. Those opening images are absurdly overdramatized to show the overpopulation. The balconies are full of people, like all of them standing there and the stairs of the apartment buildings are always full of people sitting around, not willing to give up their seat for anything as Charlton Heston jumps over them in an almost choreographed way. The funny thing is that the streets are almost empty at times and then again crowded with cars.

In an amazing scene we see a riot breaking out because of a lack of food. Thorn (Charlton Heston) has to do riot police duty there and at times they seem to be extremely understaffed. Which is okay because they found a great way of dealing with riots. There are “riot trucks” that just appear on the street and lift groups of people and throw them on the back of the truck like trash (the poster is not exaggerating). It is so absurd and gruesome at the same time as people are treated like waste. One thing that occurred to me, though, is that if there is such a lack of food, even for policemen, why would they still do their job? Why would they risk their lives to stop people from rioting if there aren’t better off themselves? Thorne lives in an apartment with Sol (Edward G. Robinson) and they have almost no food! Why would you risk your lives keeping people from getting food if you don’t have food yourself?

In this future, women have become a commodity for some reason, like furniture. I mean, literally, rich people in this movie get women as part of their apartments and call them “furniture”. Which could be an interesting criticism, which doesn’t work since the protagonist treats women worse than anyone else. Which, in the end, can also be said of the movie. If we see women (if they’re not part of the faceless crowd of poor people), they are barely dressed and always willing to please men. Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), better known as Furniture, is described by Thorn as having grapefruit-like breasts. When he talks to another woman, she is half-naked and offers herself to him immediately. Thorn declines because he has no time. When he has sex with Shirl, it is nothing they have to talk about, it is understood that she has to serve him. Heston seems to be irresistible. At one point she asks him not to call her “furniture”, but he isn’t sure if he is able to.

When a group of women is attacked by a man at that apartment (while Thorn is having sex), the camera watches it for a long time, with all the other women passively standing around, scared and helpless. Thorn comes in to help, but later he wants to question someone and beats him up and the man’s girlfriend wants to help, Thorn slaps her several times in the face and smashes her against the wall. That’s the same woman that offered him sex earlier. It’s an unbelievable ugly scene as he really gives Nicolas Cage a run for his money. In the very next scene, he has to be comforted by naked Shirl, although nothing happened to him! That’s the same moment where he has a hard time calling her by her first name. When she is later passed on to the new owner of the apartment, we are supposed to be disgusted by him, but he is not really worse than Thorn.

Finally, let’s take a look at the movie’s worldview. It is mostly shown through the eyes of old Sol, who is about to die of old age (like Robinson was, which makes his scenes undeniably effective). He has seen the world as it was and talks about it a lot. In the beginning he says, people haven’t changed: “Nobody cares, nobody tries, including me!” Later he says “People were always rotten, but the world was beautiful.” Here we get the standard idea of “humans are flawed, that’s why the world ends now.” Later, when Sol finds out the secret of Soylent Green, the existence of god is questioned. His death scene, then, is fascinating because he decides to die by choice in some kind of euthanasia institution, where you could spend the last minutes of your life with your favorite color and images that please. So for minutes we see him lying there simply watching images of animals, wildlife, scenery, sunsets and so on. Thorn walks in and it brings him to tears too. Thereby, the movie suggests that we destroyed the beauty of nature, that we sacrificed something for our progress. That’s not a very original idea, of course, but it was relatively new for its time and I still appreciate the boldness with which it is put forward here.

(spoilers now)

The ending of course reinforces that idea, by basically saying we cannibalizing ourselves by destroying the world we live in. It is hard to deny the effectiveness of that ending, which of course is similar to Planet of the Apes, which has almost the same idea (and the same actor acting the same way in the same final moments). You might find it obvious or ham-fisted or corny, but we view those movies with our cynical apathy of today and not with the rage that made such movies possible back then. I’m not saying, we need the rage back, but there was an urgency to many of those movies (and songs), that you don’t often find today anymore. And it’s not as if there is no urgency for the problems we have anymore. Anyway, the last shot of the movie is incredibly awkward, an out of focus glimpse of Thorn’s bloody hand. It takes away something of the ending, but we can simply credit that to clumsy 70s filmmaking. During the end credits, though, we get the same images Sol saw on his deathbed, leaving us with images of beauty that we must save, I guess. Overall, as you can see by my too many words, an interesting movie.