Thanks to Phil Hartman’s riotous Saturday Night Live impersonation of Charlton Heston’s hysterical detective from Soylent Green, people who’ve never seen Richard Fleischer’s film know its surprise ending. Yet despite the fact that everyone is familiar with the film’s famous twist, Fleischer’s moody science fiction mystery remains, 30 years after its initial release, a moderately appealing encapsulation of 1970s paranoia. Following closely on the heels of Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man, Heston cemented his reputation as a science fiction titan with Soylent Green, turning in a performance that blends weary existential detachment with a deep-rooted mistrust of authority. Heston’s Detective Robert Thorn works in a dystopian 2022 New York City overflowing with 40 million civilians and plagued by pollution that (courtesy of some cheesy special effects) gives everything outdoors a rusty orange-brown hue. With greenhouse gases having destroyed the world’s meat, dairy, fruit, and vegetable supplies, the hungry masses now receive nutrition via creepy multi-colored food products courtesy of multinational corporation Soylent. Thorn is sent to investigate the death of a Soylent executive (an underutilized Joseph Cotton), but finds the man’s opulent apartment—replete with rare liquor, giant hand soaps, and fresh meat—more interesting than the corpse in the living room. Thorn takes a special liking to the murdered man’s hotel-provided whore Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), and the film’s ludicrous portrait of male-female sexual relationships (Thorn lovingly refers to Shirl as “furniture”) is almost as dated as the chintzy, early-‘70s décor, hairstyles, and technology meant to pass as “futuristic.” As the ensuing investigation uncovers a diabolical plot involving the highest levels of government, Heston’s Thorn acts tough, steals from everyone he meets, and puts up with his elderly roommate Sol’s (Edgar G. Robinson, in his final screen performance) wistful recollections of the past. Fleischer uses Holocaust-era allegorical allusions to fortify his story’s repeated warnings about the consequences of over-consumption and environmental carelessness, but the film is too mindless and shrill to properly incorporate such historical symbolism into its unfocused narrative. On the other hand, the film strikes a poignant chord with its chilling portrayal of a state-sponsored euthanasia program that utilizes movie-watching as a narcotic designed to help the sick and elderly die peacefully. Whereas Kubrick’s ‘71 sci-fi classic A Clockwork Orange posited the moving image as a potentially dangerous force to be regarded with skepticism, Soylent Green champions film’s transcendent power not only to replicate the real world, but also to enhance one’s appreciation of life’s boundless wonders.
- Richard Fleischer
- Stanley R. Greenberg
- Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors, Joseph Cotton, Brock Peters, Paula Kelly, Edward G. Robinson
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