The Royal Wedding aired at around three in the morning in California. So, I did what any sensible little geek would do . . . I turned that shit off and watched Soylent Green instead.
Honestly, I had my doubts going in . . . but actually, I rather liked it.
It’s the year 2022, and overpopulation and pollution have royally screwed over the whole world. Jobs are scarce, homes too, and most people are starving, wholly dependent upon the food rations provided to them by the government. These rations are a line of soylent products: soylent red, soylent yellow, and—the one that people covet the most—soylent green.
Thorn (Charlton Heston) is a detective in New York City. He’s supposed to solve the murder of a rich man named Simonson, but it becomes obvious very quickly that this isn’t some simple B&E gone wrong. Thorn sets out to uncover the conspiracy surrounding Simonsen’s murder . . . and ends up uncovering something ghastly enough to drive people mad. (Dun dun dun!)
1. I won’t reveal the “twist” for the three people out there who haven’t heard it yet. But like most people who own a television, I knew what the big conspiracy was before I even started this movie. As such, I wasn’t all that interested in watching Soylent Green, not when I had other kickass movies to try out, like Escape from New York or Barbarella.
But Soylent Green is a classic, and anyway, it’s shorter than all the other movies I’m not that interested in (read: Solaris), so in effort to not save the worst for last, I decided to try it out.
I’m glad I did. Soylent Green is a little cheesy, a little dated, and never subtle, but I had fun watching it all the same, and it had a great moment of emotional resonance that really anchored the whole film for me.
2. Of course, I did have to get past that opening montage.
Soylent Green begins with a two-minute montage showing how the world became overpopulated and polluted and all that negative jazz, and if two minutes doesn’t sound like a long time to you, trust me: when it’s basically the same picture over and over and over again, two minutes can be a very long time. I didn’t mind the basic idea of the montage, but I think the effect could have been easily pulled off in half that time.
3. Actually, one of my biggest complaints about Soylent Green is how repetitive some of the shots are. There’s a scene where this bulldozer is being used to scoop up rioters, and it was kind of fun to watch that . . . the first eight times. After that, the next sixteen shots were a little unnecessary. (Yes, I exaggerate, but honestly? Probably not by that much.)
I did like some of the shots in Soylent Green a lot. The world is so overpopulated and awful that about thirty people sleep together on a staircase, and watching Heston kind of hop past them was cool. I also liked how the church was shot, with the exhausted priests and nuns attempting to tend to the hundreds of homeless people housed within its walls. Soylent Green is very effective at showing the audience just what kind of world they’re watching . . . but it’s also like they’re worried you won’t get the message, so they tell it to you again . . . and again . . . and again.
4. So, like I said: Soylent Green is a little ham-fisted. But, mostly, it’s ham-fisted and enjoyable. Charlton Heston isn’t too bad as Thorn, a cop with a bad attitude but a secret heart of gold. He’s certainly not above abusing his power as a police officer, stealing food from murder victims and suspects alike. (He also goads someone into hitting him once, which apparently carries a life sentence, like, jeez, people. I’m all for not hitting cops, but shoving a dude backwards gets you life? Kinda steep, is all I’m saying.)
But Thorn does have two relationships that help to humanize him: his friendship with an old guy named Sol (Edward G. Robinson), and his semi-romance with a prostitute named Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young.)
5. Let’s talk about Sol first because his friendship with Thorn is the brightest spot in the whole movie.
Sol and Thorn share an apartment, and since Sol is an old man, he’s constantly talking about how the world used to be, you know, when there was food and clean skies and people weren’t living on staircases. Thorn always rolls his eyes at these lectures because he can’t imagine such a world and clearly believes Sol’s a forgetful, old man idealizing his past and/or senile.
But even though they’re constantly cranky with one another, it’s obvious how much the two care about each other. Just when you’re thinking what a putz Thorn is for lifting the meat from a dead guy’s apartment, you see Sol burst into tears when Thorn gives it to him, and the moment plays really well. For that matter, the scene with the two of them eating their little, stolen feast is easily one of the best scenes in the whole movie.
Thorn’s friendship with Sol really serves to make our hero more sympathetic. His relationship with Shirl is . . . a touch less successful.
6. Shirl is basically a live-in prostitute. Live-in prostitutes are common for the rich; they come with the apartment (if the new tenant wants them) and they cook and entertain and have to screw pretty much anyone who walks in the door that wants it. They’re called “furniture.” Lovely, I know.
I really like Shirl for most of the movie. She’s calm, confident. She doesn’t whine about her life. (Not that she doesn’t have cause—sure, she’s a victim of the system. But honestly, in this world? Who isn’t?) I love this little exchange where Thorn—after treating her like furniture—asks something like, “Aren’t you angry?” and she just looks at him, like, “Why?” I like that Shirl isn’t the kind of prostitute shown to be constantly crying into her pillow, waiting for some good man to take her away from all of this.
That being said . . . of course Thorn and Shirl have some inexplicable love connection that seems to spring out of nowhere because they are the Lead Male and Lead Female. At least, they don’t declare stupid things like you’re my one and only or I’ll follow you anywhere. It’s not too mushy or ridiculous. But it does seem very sudden. One minute, Thorn’s casually undressing and hopping into bed with Shirl as he asks her questions about the dead guy (as all police investigations should be handled) and the next she’s thinking about forsaking her life in luxury to follow him to his shitty apartment with no comforts and very little food. I wouldn’t mind so much if they built up an actual relationship between the two, but Thorn doesn’t really treat her that much better than anyone else, and yet they’re supposed to have this luv connection that I just don’t see.
7. Plus, how exactly do you fall in love with a man who wears a baseball cap with an ascot?
And the pants? Ohmygod, the pants. I know that some men are probably proud of what they got and want to show it off, but . . . I don’t think I know a woman who would be turned on by the bulging, triangular shaped cut of Thorn’s pants. Ugh.
8. Finally, the hired gun (well, crowbar) that kills Simonson in the beginning? Worst. Assassin. Ever. You’d think the government could spring for a guy who knows what he’s doing, but nope, apparently the one guy that could bring this whole conspiracy to its knees isn’t important enough to get killed by a professional. And you might be thinking, hey, the assassin got the job done, didn’t he? Yes, well, that’s pretty much because Simonson didn’t move. He let himself be murdered.
Now, on to the Spoilers . . . assuming you haven’t already been spoiled for this movie before . . .
Okay, I just have to get this out of my system . . .
SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Whew, okay. Sorry, but that needed to be done. Now, where was I? Ah. Sol discovers the truth about the conspiracy and decides he doesn’t want to live with it—he’s been pretty depressed the whole movie—so he decides to “go home.” And by home, I mean he goes to a clinic that plays pretty music and lets him watch pictures of the gorgeous world we once had before they euthanize him.
The thing is, I pegged Sol as Dead Meat from pretty much the first second I saw him, one, because it’s obvious, and two, because he’s my favorite character, and my favorite characters in movies often don’t seem to have very long life expectancies. (Cough, cough, Serenity.)
But even though I was expecting it, the scene were Sol dies is really very moving. Thorn shows up and talks to him through a glass, taking in the world that used to be, finally understanding that Sol wasn’t crazy or forgetful after all . . . the world really once was that beautiful of a place. I was impressed by Heston’s acting here . . . he really does seem anguished that he’s helpless to save his friend who is dying in front of him.
I later found out that Edward G. Robinson was actually dying of cancer when this movie was being made, and he had told Heston before this scene that he didn’t have long to live. In fact, Robinson died twelve days after shooting his own death scene. This is . . . exceptionally depressing. But it is a really good scene. It gives the movie an emotional weight that I think the film needs, ties it together as something slightly more important than just a movie where Charlton Heston shoots people. Again.
Anyway, Sol tells Thorn (but not the audience) that soylent green is made out of people and that Thorn needs to prove it. So Thorn hops on a truck carting dead bodies off to some factory, and sure enough, soylent green is indeed made out of human flesh. Yum. Thorn gets into a gunfight with bad guy Tab Fielding and manages to kill him but not before getting shot.
Chief Hatcher (Brock Peters) shows up, and Thorn tells him (and the audience) the ghastly truth . . . in the kind of overwrought, hammy performance that you might expect, but I don’t mind it too much. I mean, the guy just got shot in the stomach (not to mention lost his friend and gave up his girl and all sorts of nonsense). I think he’s earned the right to shriek like a lunatic for a little while. It’s been an upsetting day.
My problem with the end, actually, is that it just cuts off. Heston is carried offscreen, screaming about soylent green, and the movie just ends—you don’t know if he’s going to live, if the Chief will actually do anything about the truth, if everyone is just going to think Thorn is crazy . . . it just stops. And sometimes ambiguous ends work well for a film, but this one doesn’t really feel intentionally ambiguous so much as, Whoops, we accidentally destroyed the last scene of the movie . . . fuck it, we’ll just end it here instead. Maybe if Heston’s performance had been less hammy, it would have played better, but . . . as is, when the credits roll, I was like . . . o-kay?
Still, I enjoyed the movie. It was fun (probably more so if you don’t already know what soylent green is) and Sol’s and Thorn’s friendship balances the film out. I have some problems with it—mainly, that it tends to be unnecessarily repetitive—but overall, I enjoyed watching this one. Much better than some silly, British wedding.
Err . . . don’t pollute and have thousands of babies. Cause, otherwise, the world ends up like this: