Monday, February 28, 2011

Movie Review: SOYLENT GREEN (1973) Dir. Richard Fleischer Starring Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, Brock Peters

Soylent Green tells a story about a nighmare future where the population bomb has exploded. People are everywhere. Clogging the streets, the stairwells, the hospitals, the jails, the prisons, the schools, the homeless shelters, the supermarkets, the social services offices, the unemployment lines . . . the only places that are free of excess people are the high rise luxury apartment buildings reserved for the wealthy and the power elites, and the fenced off ditches that serve as barricades between the haves and the have-nots.

Real food is a scarce luxury. A small hunk of beef can go for hundreds of dollars on the blackmarket. Hygiene items like soap and toothpaste are also equally rare. Forget about real sugar and spices.

The populace is fed various product lines of kibble called Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow, and, the latest, Soylent Green. Soylent is the name of the super-corporation that cranks out the artificially engineered and flavored all-purpose nutrition products. Soylent food isn't all that flavorful, but nobody much remembers the flavor of real food anyways, so few complain.

Or maybe the population bomb hasn't exploded. Maybe there are just too many poor people.The wealthy and the powerful don't give a good goddamn about the downtrodden. They are more than happy to cling to their luxury and influence, and ghettoize the excess people in the world.

No more social safety net, no more due process, and no more public education. The younger generations coming up are barely literate. The only people with any knowledge of the past are the elderly and the middle aged. The middle aged are already starting to forget. The elderly are dying off. History is an obsolete profession.

Police work is an interesting affair in this world. Meet NYPD homicide detective Robert Thorn, played by Charlton Heston in one of his best screen performances. Thorn's partner is a "bookman" named Sol Roth, a former university professor who does all the background work on Thorn's murder investigations. Sol is played by screen legend Edward G. Robinson in his final film role. Thorn and Sol aren't just partners. They're roommates in a cramped apartment. Thorn is edging into middle age. Sol is elderly. Sol remembers everything that is gone in the world, and Thorn gently teases him about his griping. Sol remembers the taste of real food, real fruits, real vegetables, actual meat. Thorn eats his Soylent Red, Yellow, and even Green, and doesn't get too upset about the pleasures of a world he never knew.

That's not to say that Thorn doesn't appreciate the good things in life when they come his way. One of the perks of his job as a homicide dick is that anytime he goes to investigate a murder in one of the luxury high rise apartments he gets to loot the place. The deceased have no use for that lightly used bar of soap, that odd cut of beef in the fridge, or that bowl of apples and bannanas. Maybe he'll take a few hardback books home for his partner Sol. Hell, while he's working the crime scene, maybe he'll take a shower break, and revel in the sensation of high pressure, scalding hot water. Top it off with a solid hump with one of the bonded concubines who are part of the package deal for the elite renters. These concubines are known as "furniture." The furniture are sex slaves who are, presumably, sterilized, and exist to serve the mostly male occupants' lusts.

There's little pressure on Thorn to actually solve any homicides. He's got a backlog of cases about two years or so deep. Homicide is just another form of population control, when you think about it.

When Thorn isn't on homicide duty, he's on riot duty. That involves him and other cops putting on facistic looking football helmets and suppressing frustrated hordes of starving people with clubs. They're supported in this duty by bulldozers which come in and scoop up people and take them off to who knows where. Most of the riots seemed to be triggered by scarcity of the Soylent food products. Citizens queue up to get their weekly ration, but the rations run out, and there's still a line, and the riots begin. Thorn isn't a great cop, but he doesn't much like cracking the heads of hungry, desperate people.

Soylent Green is notorious for its surprise ending, so I won't say anything about it. If you have no idea what the ending is, then you're in for a helluva story.

But even if you know the ending, but have never actually seen the whole film, it is well worth watching.

First off, it features a great performance by Charlton Heston as Thorn. Heston could've sleepwalked through this role. He has the chiseled looks and the booming voice of a classic actor. He could've overplayed it. Instead, he embraces the flaws of the character: his casual larceny and corruption, his griminess, even his sexual frustration. Thorn isn't exactly evil, but he's not perfect, either. And he's still got some strong instincts as a detective.

The other great performance comes from Edward G. Robinson as Sol. Robinson was dying while making this movie. He gives a humane and humorous performance as a kind of Last Man On Earth. He is the last man who remembers history, literature, and good food and drink. He also, perhaps, has some memory of the atrocities of the twentieth century that helped pave the way for the world of Soylent Green. His final scene is mindblowing and reveals a depth of strangeness and absurdity to the world of the story.

The plot of the film revolves around a murder which sets Thorn on the trail of both the murderer and a possible link to a larger political/business conspiracy related to the murder.

Soylent Green has been much parodied over the years. I knew the secret of its ending going into it, and had seen plenty of spoofs in TV shows and sketch comedy, but what surprised me was how serious the actual film is. It has an outrageous conclusion, and yet it doesn't play as camp. It is the final condition of a world subjected to the nightmare logic of business as usual.

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