Today, I’d like to talk about another apocalyptic classic, SOYLENT GREEN, one of my favorite movies of all time. If you’re a fan of apocalyptic or dystopian movies and haven’t seen it yet, you’ve really got to watch it. Produced in 1973 and starring Charlton Heston in the lead role, it still holds up as more prescient, horrible and exciting than most movies like it being made today.
In SOYLENT GREEN, a New York City Police Department detective Frank Thorn, played by Heston, is called to investigate the murder of a rich and powerful man (William R. Simonson, played by Joseph Cotten) who, though he’s not in government, is connected to the ruling elite that makes the decisions. During the case, he connects with Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), Simonson’s concubine, and clashes with Tab Fielding (Chuck Connors), Simonson’s bodyguard. He is aided by his “book,” Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson in his 101st and final film), an old man who remembers what the world was like before it all went to hell.
This mystery plays out against the oppressive backdrop of an overpopulated, overpolluted world in which the majority of people live like animals in the streets. The year is 2022, and the population of New York is 40 million. Housing is overcrowded and falling apart; homeless people are everywhere; only half the workforce is employed while the other half is barely making it; most people are illiterate; few factories are producing anything; trees are protected in zoolike buildings; and food is increasingly scarce. The world now relies on food produced by the Soylent Corporation, made from ocean plankton.
Simonson was a member of the board of the Soylent Corporation, taking Thorn’s investigation too close to powerful interests, which push back against him. Isolated and hunted, he perseveres toward the end to discover the secret of Soylent Green and the secret Simonson was murdered to protect.
The film might best be described as dystopian. The people in the film are all struggling and consider themselves good, but they are creatures of their environment; everybody’s hustling, everybody’s on the take, everybody’s trying to get a tiny taste of the good life while the world is dying. Thorn is a principled cop who’s willing to fight to get at the truth, though not entirely honest and above stealing everything he can get his hands on at the murder scene; even after he’s shot at one point in the film, he keeps going back to work, because if he takes days off, he might get fired. All of the characters in the film–Thorn, Rothman, Simonson, Shirl, even Fielding–are all trapped by their world and its circumstances.
But SOYLENT GREEN is also an apocalyptic film. The dramas that play out at the center of the film are constantly overshadowed by the hot, filthy, poor and starving world. There’s a scene where Thorn sees a film played for the dying at a euthanasia center. The short film simply presents animals and trees and beautiful landscapes, everything that was lost. It’s the world that’s gone, that’s already dead. After being immersed in the overcrowded and stinking sewer New York has become, seeing the landscapes is heartbreaking, particularly for Thorn, who’d grown up in this world and never truly knew until this moment what humanity had lost. There’s another scene where a food riot gets out of control, and the police must send in bulldozers to scoop up the rioters and dump them into trucks like garbage.
For me, this is the kind of apocalypse that might really happen, that is already happening, though too slowly for us to really see it. The compelling storytelling, excellent acting, strong action and the realistically portrayed backdrop of a dying, overpopulated world combine to make SOYLENT GREEN a classic apocalyptic film and definitely worth a watch.
Short documentary about how the film was made: