Director: Richard Fleischer (USA). Year of Release: 1973
New York, 2022. That is this year, but seen from nearly 50 years ago. The population of New York is now 40 million. The unemployment level in Manhattan is 20 million. Now this is little to do with the film, but I’m confused. Unemployment figures don’t include children and the retired (though the world looks dystopian enough for retirement to be no longer an option). And Manhattan is one of 5 New York Boroughs. So it feels like there are more unemployed people than population.
We’ll leave that aside, as it is not mentioned again. Let’s meet the characters. Thorn is a cop, one of the few people who actually has a job. He shares an apartment with Sol Roth whose nebulous job seems to include a bit of research. Or maybe Roth is retired and has a hobby. Relatively speaking, they’re among the lucky ones who have an apartment. Even so, the electricity keeps running out, and the flat can only be lit by a generator which is powered by pedalling a bicycle.
Most people have it even worse. To get his way in and out of the apartment, Thorn has to pick their way through the staircase which is littered with sleeping bodies. While food is still available to the rich – at a price – all the masses have to eat are synthetic materials called Soylent Red and Soylent Blue. Once a week, on Tuesdays, they are allowed a change and can buy a small amount of the allegedly plankton based Soylent Green from the market.
Thorn is called to a murder case, where a rich businessman Simonson was apparently murdered by an intruder. But the intruder didn’t take anything (unlike Roth, who fills a pillow case with anything he can find in Simonson’s kitchen), and there’s no sign of a break in, so Thorn smells a rat. A little digging by Thorn (with some help from Roth) find that Simonson had links with both The Soylent Corp. and the Governor of New York.
Thorn’s investigations lead him to visit both Simonson’s bodyguard, who Thorn thinks knows more than he’s letting on, and Shirl, who was part of the furniture of Simonson’s house. Welcome to dystopia, where women are sold on as part of the property. When the house is bought, the new owner gets to decide whether he keeps Shirl in his bed- and bathroom. Shirl decides that she’d rather Thorn takes control, as this is not the sort of film where women are allowed any real control.
Thorn is essentially taken off the case, and his boss tells them that they are dealing with dozens of murders every day. This may have something to do with the police station having a poster of the Governor on the wall. It seems clear that someone Up There does not want Thorn to know any more than he does already. It is, then, no surprize when someone starts taking random potshots at him with a pistol.
I hadn’t seen Soylent Green before this evening, but did know it by reputation. Isn’t it supposed to be one of the greatest science fiction films of all time? Or have I been listening to the wrong people? Either way, it’s perfectly serviceable as a film, but just isn’t all that. With the exception of Edward G Robinson as Roth, the acting is almost universally half-hearted at best (I’d forgotten just how wooden Charlton Heston could be), and the fight scenes are laughably risible.
You might think that this was just because things were different then, if only there hadn’t just been a series of films released to celebrate their fiftieth birthday. You don’t look at The Godfather and Cabaret and think how bad acting and plot development were back in the day. And yet Soylent Green stumbles on without any real sense of dynamism or that we’re really going anywhere.
Only a few years earlier, Soylent Green’s star Charlton Heston had been in Planet of the Apes, which ended with a great reveal as the camera pulled back to show the Statue of Liberty, waist deep in sand. Soylent Green also contains a “Big Reveal” – this one is verbal, not visual. But it is mumbled and carried off so clumsily that it feels like it was added on as an afterthought. We’d sort of guessed what was happening, so Thorn’s great discovery is, if anything, an anticlimax.
Soylent Green does contain some of the era which produced it. There is a seething anger at inequalities. Small things like strawberry jam are only available to people at the very top of society, or chancers like Thorp who manage to nick a bit for themselves. The police are tooled up and use customised tractors to literally lift demonstrators off the street. The dystopic situation has officially been caused by overpopulation and climate disaster, but we see how only the rich prosper.
So, it’s a film with potential, and one which may – or may not – have carried more weight when it was released. But for me, it was all a bit “Meh!” A few good ideas which don’t really cohere together, because the plot does not manage to lead us from one scene to the next. It’s all ok, most definitely ok, but I’d been led to expect something spectacular. And it wasn’t ever really that.