In the year 2022 people are still the same. They’ll do anything to get what they need. And they need Soylent Green!
Charlton Heston is Robert Thorn – a policeman in a society so overcrowded that decent air, habitable living quarters and all natural foods have all but disappeared.
New York City has 40 million inhabitants and a yellowish-green smog hangs over the city. The ecosystem has collapsed and green plants are a thing of the past.
In the midst of this chaos, there is only one guarantor of order: The New York City Police Department. Thorn is a detective in the homicide division, and he’s been given the task of finding the killer of William R Simonson (Joseph Cotten), found dead in his luxury apartment and apparently murdered for his money.
Simonson had been CEO of the Soylent Corporation – a powerful organisation with a near-monopoly on the production of food. Soylent produces a range of synthetic foodstuffs in handy chocolate-bar formats, distinguishable from each other only by their different colours.
“Try all of Soylent’s delicious flavours: Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow, and new, delicious, Soylent Green. Made from the finest undersea growth”, implores a TV commercial.
“Soylent Green”, a natural product made of soybeans and plankton, is the most popular food around, for alternatives such as meat, fruit and vegetables can be afforded only by the upper classes in their protected enclaves.
Thorn is supported in his work by a man called Sol Roth (Edward G Robinson), a so-called “book” whose task is restricted to researching archives. Together the two uncover a shocking scandal, which the murder of Simonson was intended to conceal.
Loosely based upon the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, Soylent Green is a detective story, a political thriller and a dark vision of ecological meltdown.
Richard Fleischer’s film evokes a world of crass dichotomies: in pursuit of his investigations, Thorn moves to and fro between the luxurious world of the rich and the hopeless squalor of the urban poor.
He doesn’t hesitate to enjoy the pleasures available in Simonson’s stylish loft apartment: running hot water, a house bar, and Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), an attractive girl who’s just one more of the amenities.
The greatest luxury of all, though, is space. The generous dimensions of Simonson’s domicile stand in sharp contrast to the crammed housing blocks inhabited by the rest of the citizenry. When night falls, conditions are even more claustrophobic, with massed sleepers stacked in the stairways.
As a policeman, Thorn is relatively privileged, but he still belongs to the world of the poor. He shares a tiny room with Sol, covers his nutritional requirements with Soylent Green, and has never eaten anything better. His place of work is no less dismal – the police station is a dilapidated hole, packed with irritable colleagues.
Tough and cynical, Thorn shoulders his way through the daily routine of police work.
Critics complained of this sci-fi film’s “unrealistically contemporary look”, for the early 70s are in evidence everywhere, from the style of the furniture to the flare in the jeans.
These critics were missing the point. Director Richard Fleischer had no intention of emulating the futuristic ambience of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – instead, he wanted to confront the audience of the time with the familiar city of New York grown suddenly nightmarish.
The film’s imagery is subsequently shocking. Thus we see the police deploy mechanical excavators to scoop up a group of angry protesters before tipping them into containers and lugging them off like garbage.
The message is clear and chilling. In a world packed to overflowing, individual lives will lose all significance or value.
In the course of the film, this negative utopia is fleshed out with detail and acquires an almost documentary-like intensity.
Fleischer succeeds in combining unpretentious realism with a grim yet spectacular vision of the world that awaits us.
Soylent Green marked Edward G Robinson’s final screen appearance. In light of his failing health at the time (he died 12 days after shooting was completed) Robinson’s euthanasia scene in the movie is not easily forgotten.
Detective Robert Thorn
Edward G Robinson
William R Simonson
Lieutenant ‘Chief’ Hatcher