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.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is surprisingly sharp and full-bodied, with rich colors, impressive contrast, and solid (if somewhat underwhelming) black levels. The transfer suffers from regular debris and print scratches, but many of these defects are at least partially attributable to the distracting filter that director Fleischer uses for all outdoors scenes. Flesh tones are realistic, giving everyone's sweaty forehead a nice, glistening glow. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono mix, however, is a big disappointment. Dialogue is clear and intelligible, but the score and sound effects sound muted, unnatural, and at times out of sync with the action occurring on screen.
An audio commentary with director Richard Fleischer and actress Leigh Taylor-Young may be one of the more boring commentaries to hit DVD this year. Fleischer sounds only moderately interested in discussing his 30-year-old film, and Taylor-Young drones on and on about the film's thematic import without once realizing that she's talking about a film that's convinced bell bottoms will remain the height of fashion until at least 2022. A quick featurette about Edward G. Robinson provides footage of the diminutive actor at a cast party to celebrate the fact that Soylent Green was his 101st film. Some surprise cameos make sitting through this extra bearable, but don't go looking for a retrospective on the actor's prolific career. "A Look at the World of Soylent Green," is pure promotional garbage, although it does give viewers a glimpse into the filming of the film's riot sequence. A "Charlton Heston Science Fiction Movie Essay" lists the actor's genre roles, and the film's theatrical trailer is included in cruddy-looking non-anamorphic widescreen.
Sillier than Planet of the Apes but more engaging than The Omega Man, Soylent Green remains a treat for fans of cheesy science fiction and Charlton's Heston's blustery, pseudo-messianic '70s-era heroes.