During the 1960’s and 70’s, Charlton Heston seemed to corner the market in Science Fiction movies that painted a somewhat grim vision of the future for mankind. In ‘Planet of the Apes’ we were warned that man might be overruled by a Simian race, in ‘The Omega Man’ human beings mutated into daylight fearing creatures and in ‘Soylent Green’ the world suffered from overcrowding and food shortages.
While the first two titles mentioned above have been available on Blu-ray for some time, ‘Soylent Green’ has only now been released on American Region Free Blu-ray for the first time. Released into the cinemas in 1973, ‘Soylent Green’ is one of those movies that I saw as a teenager and it made such an impression on me that it stayed in my memory thereafter. Although I probably saw it first on a black-and-white TV in a pan and scan version, it was the story and the denouement that stayed with me for all those years – so I’m not about to spoil it for the current generation who have yet to discover it.
Now, thanks to the High Definition format, we all get the chance to see the film in its full 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio and marvellous Metrocolor. It’s quite a chilling tale of a world in which the global population has increased to the point where people have to sleep in stairwells due to the overcrowding. Real food (as we know it) is a luxury only affordable to the wealthy few. Most people live on synthetic foods produced by the Soylent Corporation that comes in three colours – red, yellow and green. The most popular of the three, Soylent Green, is claimed to be produced from plankton and is in short supply with food riots taking place when supplies run out. Global warming has grown to the point where temperatures have risen and air conditioning is a luxury item.
The plot revolves around the murder of Simonson (Joseph Cotton in his final picture), a Soylent Corporation executive being investigated by Policeman Thorn (Charlton Heston). His boss seems keen to close the case with a generic ‘killed by a thief’ verdict, but Thorn suspects there may be another reason – perhaps based on something the victim knew or had discovered.
'Soylent Green' was the last appearance of screen legend Edward G. Robinson who died not long after its release and it was also his 101st movie. He plays Sol Roth, who shares an apartment with Detective Sergeant Thorn and who does all the research into the cases under investigation. The man is like a library of information, who is also old enough to remember life before Soylent of any colour. There’s a wonderful scene where he cooks a stew using a piece of beef ‘liberated’ from a crime scene by Thorn – and the two savour a real meal for the first time in many a year.
In the process of his research, Sol discovers something so disturbing that he decides not to continue with life and carries out an ‘assisted suicide’. This scene is extremely moving as Sol watches the last images he’ll ever see of beautiful flowers, green fields and blue skies to a soundtrack of classical music.
Will Detective Thorn find out the secret that caused his friend to want to end his life?
What could be so awful that it would make this happen?
Watch ‘Soylent Green’ to find out.
The film was very much ahead of its time and, although it looks just a little dated, raises many thorny issues that worry us today. Global warming, overcrowding, food shortages and assisted suicide – these are all current issues and no longer Science Fiction but Science Fact.
Charlton Heston turns in his usual solid performance. Any man who could convince an audience that he could part the Red Sea was just the kind of actor required to add gravitas to an ominous Sci-Fi story. There’s a very good on screen chemistry between Heston’s character and that of Edward G. Robinson as they trade friendly insults that belie a genuine underlying affection. Fans of 1960’s TV’s ‘Rifleman’ series will be thrilled to see Chuck Connors as a bodyguard and leading lady Leigh Taylor-Young appears as the love interest.
Director Richard Fleischer handles the material intelligently and, when required, with sensitivity. He realised that this was a film about the story and, although he had two big Hollywood stars, managed to maintain a realistic perspective. This isn’t a movie that boasts eye boggling special effects, it’s a great deal more subtle than to allow spectacle to overtake the narrative . The world he depicts is grimy and gritty with everyone (except the rich) looking hot and sweaty. It’s an environment not too unlike our own, so becoming immersed in the tale is much easier than tuning into a world of stainless steel and clinically clean surfaces.The exteriors have a green tint, hinting at pollution in the atmosphere and the interiors are dark with shadows from the domestic lighting that fizzles out when the power supply is drained.
Despite its vintage, it’s still a very effective piece of cinema and one that every Sci-Fi fan should take the time to watch. A remake is currently in development for production in 2012. Let’s hope they do a better job with ‘Soylent Green’ than they did with the remake of ‘The Omega Man’ which became ‘I am Legend’. On the other hand they could just leave this good movie alone, but since there's a buck to be made...
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