Soylent Green is a lot like a Twilight Zone episode. It has an odd, sci-fi setting and revolves around a twist ending (what I call the punchline ending). It also has a lot of the same problems that I complained about when I covered the Twilight Zone: the characters are a little flat, the concept is stretched very thin to fill the time, and your enjoyment probably depends a whole lot on how surprised you are by the revelation at the film’s end. Unfortunately, Soylent Green has one of those shock endings that have entered popular culture. If you’ve heard of Soylent Green, I’m sure you know how it ends, but I’ll avoid the spoilers just in case.
The film takes place in 2022. Like a lot of visions of the near future that we’ve seen recently in the course of these readings and viewings, it’s over-crowded and polluted, and the government is corrupt and uncaring. The Greenhouse effect has run wild, so it’s always hot, people are starving, and an odd fuzz (representing air pollution) hangs over all of the film’s outdoor scenes. When people protest the horrible conditions of their world, riot police scoop them up with bulldozers. It’s not unlike the world presented by LeGuin at the beginning of The Lathe of Heaven, but there’s no magical dreaming to escape it.
Charlton Heston plays the lead role: a hard-boiled cop who is investigating the murder of a big food magnate. Along the way, he discovers a disturbing secret.
The film is brief, and there’s not much there beyond that shock ending. The film sort of meanders along; the world-building scenes are somewhat interesting, the investigatory scenes not so much. Even the climactic chase and shoot-out drags. There are also some big-time 70s clichés at work here: the tough-as-nails cop, the beautiful half-naked women who exist solely as sex objects, etc.
There are two sequences that I did find very effective: the opening scene that uses real photographs to suggest the declension of society and rapid population growth, and a really powerful euthanasia scene towards the film’s end. These two bits alone almost make the film worth watching, and if you don’t know the final twist, I’d definitely check this out.
By the way, the film includes some great performances by some film legends in supporting roles. Joseph Cotton (of Citizen Kane fame) has a smaller role, and character actor Edward G. Robinson is fantastic Heston’s mentor in his 101st and last role (he died shortly after filming ended).Grade: B+