Believe it or not, until yesterday afternoon, I had never seen the science fiction classic SOYLENT GREEN (1973). I never went to the theater to see it on first release back when I was in high school and I've just never gotten around to ever watching it in the years since. I've seen it now and I must confess that it was better than I thought it would be.
And yes, I knew going in what the "surprise" twist at the end of the film was. Heck, even people who have no knowledge of the film whatsoever have heard the phrase "soylent green is people!" Relax. I'm not giving anything away. This one doesn't require a "spoiler alert".
The film was based on the science fiction novel MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! by Harry Harrison who just recently passed away. I haven't read the book but I do have a copy on my shelf. Maybe one of these days...
It's the year 2022 and everything has pretty much gone to hell. Everything has broken down, from society to technology and nothing works. The world is overcrowded and there are drastic food shortages. Water and synthetically manufactured food (soylent products) are strictly rationed. Real food (beef, fresh fruits and vegetables) are available only to the very wealthy. Global warming has hit and it's hot all the time. It's a believable future scenario which seems remarkably prescient coming from the distant year of 1973.
Charlton Heston stars a police detective (who wears a very informal uniform) investigating a series of murders. The latest involves the brutal slaying of a member of the board of the Soylent corporation. Joseph Cotten, who plays the executive, appears in the film for about one minute, just long enough to be killed (and collect a paycheck from the producers).
Heston is aided in his investigation by Sol (Edward G. Robinson), a diminutive "book" in his employ. In this future world, real books are precious commodities and Sol has a small collection of them and knows how to mine their pages for the vital information that Heston needs.
Cotten was killed because he knew the truth about Soylent Green and refused to go along with the nefarious plan. His bodyguard, played by Chuck Connors, is in on the scheme. Cotten leaves behind a luxury apartment that comes complete with a live-in prostitute (the lovely Leigh Taylor-Young). She is referred to as "furniture" and will convey to the next owner of the apartment.
Along with human "books" and "furniture", this future dystopia provides managed suicides in which the soon to be dead are shown scenes of the 100% human free natural world accompanied by beautiful classical music. It's what heaven must be like after living in such oppressive conditions.
Heston, who normally overacts and chews the scenery, is actually quite good here in a nuanced performance as the weary detective doggedly doing his job and discovering the horrible truth about what his fellow humans are eating. The film ends with this revelation but we don't know if the information will be disseminated on a widespread enough basis to effect a change among the corrupt powers-that-be (which include genre vet Whit Bissell as the governor).
SOYLENT GREEN is capably directed by Richard Fleischer. There are some action sequences but the real focus here is the world these characters inhabit, how they deal with their living conditions and what they'll do to survive. The material is played straight and camp free. Although "soylent green is people" has become a catch-all catch phrase, at the time it was a pretty shocking revelation which provides us with (pardon the expression) "food for thought".
I give SOYLENT GREEN a thumbs up. It's an earnest work of speculative fiction that's recommended to all genre film fans.