Okay, let’s get it out of the way; “soylent green is people.” Yes, we know.
I was (and am) a huge Charleton Heston fan, and Soylent Green was one big reason (The Ten Commandments, Planet of the Apes, Ben Hur, and The Omega Man being among the others…). The film is one of the social commentary science fiction sub-genre that the early 1970’s seemed to pump out in profusion, and arguably the most famous.
It begins as a police procedural set in an interesting dystopian future in the year 2022; overpopulation is at epic proportions, what we would call normal economics has completely broken down, ecological disaster is looming if not already upon us, and society is on the verge of collapse. The teeming masses are unemployed and homeless, living in hallways or abandoned cars, while the few live in luxury, surrounded by guards and surveilance systems. Food riots are common and suicide is legal and encouraged. In this world is detective Thorn (Heston), a dedicated but hardly idealistic cop trying to solve the many murders to which he is assigned, if for no other reason than to keep his job in the face of the 20 million unemployed in New York who would jump at the chance to get it.
Thorn is assigned to the murder of one William Simonson, a former member of the board of directors of the Soylent corporation, which supplies food for billions of people. In the course of looting Simonson’s home (during the course of the investigation, naturally) he not only finds real beef (!) and other food, but a pair of classified reports which he brings home to his “police book” Saul (played exquisitely by Edward G. Robinson in his final role). He quickly discovers that this is no ordinary murder, and his superiors are being pressured to drop the investigation from powers at the highest levels of the government. Thorn resists, and attempts are made on his life, which only serves to strengthen his resolve to get to the bottom of the case.
The aging Saul, meanwhile, has decided that the time has come for him to “go home”; that is, visit one of the assisted suicide facilities. Thorn attempts to stop him, but is too late. He hears Saul’s dying confession about the contents of the classified reports; the oceans are dead, and the new “Soylent green” is not made from plankton as is commonly believed, but from human corpses. Thorn infiltrates a Soylent factory where he finds proof, and as he is killed by the conspiracy that has aimed to keep the secret, he famously declares the truth to all those in the church in which he meets his end. Soylent green is people.
This is another film with an abiguous ending, allowing the viewer to superimpose his own desires upon it. Will Thorn’s revelation be heeded, causing the Soylent corporation and the government to be toppled from their places of power? Or is the world already too far gone, and will the cynicism of the teeming masses generate naught but a collective shrug, as they line up for their daily quota of Soylent green wafers?
The characters are very well-defined in the film, which makes it more than a mere platform for displaying how awful modern society can become if allowed to move along its present (1973, anyway) trajectory. We really care what happens to Thorn (and most especially to Roth; there’s a subtext of homoeroticism there that isn’t explored, but left to ambiguity), and his passion that Roth not have died in vain is very well portrayed.
Of course, at the time, I was more interested in the intricacies of the world itself. I was captivated by the presentation of New York, with its border on Philadelphia, population of 40 million, and omnipresent crowds. The scene where the food riot is broken up by police “scoops” (massive earth-movers which literally scoop up the rioters and dump them in the back of the truck, presumably to be taken into custody) is one of those iconic scenes that really sticks with you. All in all, it’s a message-heavy film with good characterization, and that’s the element that brings is above the average.