Soylent Green (1973)

*. Author Harry Harrison had no input into the screenplay developed out of his novel Make Room! Make Room! but later said he was “fifty percent” pleased with the film.
*. I wonder which fifty percent he meant. The movie doesn’t take much from the book aside from the general setting — an overpopulated NYC, now pushed back to 2022 instead of 1999 — and the central character being a police investigator. The plot starts off kind of similar with a murder in a rich estate, but from there is spins off in an entirely different direction. Note how in the end credits it’s just said to be based on “a novel” by Harry Harrison. They don’t even give the title.
*. None of the most memorable parts of the movie appear in the book. In the book: (1) there are no “scoops” clearing the streets of people; (2) Sol doesn’t kill himself by checking into a euthanasia clinic; (3) Shirl is a kept woman, but not “furniture,” and (4) Soylent Green isn’t people. Indeed, in the novel the product is only mentioned once as I recall.
*. The priest is a new addition too. I guess he’s had a breakdown, as he doesn’t seem to be all there.
*. One interesting continuity is that while the book was written as a monitory tale of global overpopulation, its particular vision of dystopia seems more inflected by climate change (the insufferable heat) and resource depletion. That’s also the case in the movie, where much of the time we’re in what appears to be an almost entirely depopulated cityscape. Yes there are curfews at night, but aside from the crowds rioting in one location for food (MGM’s back lot, just before it was turned into condos) and the bodies cluttered on stairways (not, one wold think, the best place to sleep), there’s little sign of overpopulation here. Thorn’s apartment is a good size and the city seems to have a lot of empty space elsewhere. They even have a library with stacks of books!

*. Thorn’s final warning that “They’re making our food out of people. Next thing they’ll be breeding us like cattle for food!” doesn’t make sense in terms of overpopulation. Why would you breed more mouths to feed? Surely it would be better to breed more cattle for food than to breed more humans.
*. What makes that composite crowbar so special? It doesn’t seem very high tech to me. From Richard Fleischer’s commentary: “These tools are in very rare existence at this time, they consider them like jewels.” Why?
*. Shirl is playing a very early video game called Computer Space. I’ve heard that this may be the first video game ever seen in a movie, and since Computer Space actually predated Pong (!) I can believe it.
*. Edward G. Robinson’s final film, and it’s a great performance in a not great but memorable part. On the other hand, I found I’d completely forgotten that Joseph Cotten was in this.
*. You’d think you’d get to request your own playlist for your death. Just asking for “classical . . . light classical” seems beneath a man of Sol’s refined taste.

*. Even contemporary reviews found “the mystery of Soylent Green” (as it’s called in the trailer) to be oversold. It’s pretty obvious what is going on long before we get to Thorn’s anguished cry at the end. There’s actually a lesson in this. It’s not that the big secret is so obvious. They could have got away with that. The problem is that they build it up too much, and conceal it far too awkwardly (like having the audio cutting out during Sol’s death scene). It’s OK to have a secret, but you can’t keep saying you’ve got a secret while being cute in not telling us. This just becomes irritating.
*. I wonder how ambiguous they wanted the ending to be. Is the police chief (Brock Peters) really going to tell the world? He seems pretty compromised to me.
*. Over the years this is a movie that has achieved a certain cultural status. Everybody knows the line about “Soylent Green is people!” And certain other aspects, like the “scoops,” are almost as indelible. And I guess it works well enough, even with its late-psychedelic (“more than ultra-modern” according to Fleischer) vision of the future. Thorn’s apartment looks more inviting than the ritzy disco lounge Shirl furnishes.
*. If it never becomes a great movie I’m inclined to blame Richard Fleischer. I’m in agreement with David Thomson’s judgment that “In the late sixties and early seventies, Fleischer aimed at being the most prolific and least identifiable director in America.” It’s not that there aren’t any imaginative and creative design elements, but it feels dull and the whole winds up being less than the sum of its parts.
*. So it’s an iconic movie that should be seen at least once. A second time? I think the last time I saw it was more than thirty years ago so I thought seeing it again was worth it, but I think three decades for a re-viewing is about right.

2 thoughts on “Soylent Green (1973)

  1. Tom Moody

    It seemed at the time of release that Heston or the studio thought a “Heston movie” had to have him shouting something emotionally at the end, a la Planet of the Apes, and “Soylent Green is people” was the best they could come up with. So you had a movie building up to that line even though the twist lacked the impact of that buried Lady Liberty. We high school film cognoscenti found it ludicrous and went around yelling “Soylent Green is people!” in an aggrieved, overwrought tone whenever things got boring.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think the ending of The Omega Man is something similar, with Heston cast in the role of sacrificial Christ figure. At the end of that movie it’s his blood that’s going to save the world, and here he is going to be turned into wafers.


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