**/**** Image B Sound B- Extras D+
starring Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors, Edward G. Robinson
screenplay by Stanley R. Greenberg, based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison
directed by Richard Fleischer
by Walter Chaw I've spent a lot of time in my life dancing with Richard Fleischer's dystopian Soylent Green. Sometimes it leads, sometimes I do. For everything it does well, there are some things it does badly; and if the things it does well it does extremely well, the things it does badly it, likewise, does just awfully. No half measures here. Beginning with the good, here's Edward G. Robinson tapping his mortality (he succumbed to cancer less than two weeks after production wrapped), finding in his celluloid swan song a depth of despair he rarely touched in his career proper. It's up there with Montgomery Clift's devastated cameo in Judgment at Nuremberg--enough so that when he closes his eyes in appreciation of a leaf of lettuce his long-time companion Det. Thorn (Charlton Heston) has scavenged from the apartment of dead industrialist Simonson (Joseph Cotten, in his last role, too), it actually doesn't make you want to laugh. Not so the incongruities of this dystopian, post-apocalyptic future in a Manhattan (and world) destroyed by over-population, but not to the point where the streets don't empty in observance of a curfew. It presents a future in 2022 that seems unlikely not because we're not currently on the verge of some great ecological disaster, but because rough math suggests that the Heston character would've been born the year before the film's 1973 release and thus his declaration that he'd never seen a grapefruit (or grass, or cows) should worm its way into the audience consciousness as Soylent Green's statement that it's not serious, thoughtful science-fiction, but rather soapbox and screed timed to coincide with, in 1972, the first international conference on climate change.
Thorn, as he's pilfering Simonson's larder, also stashes away a couple of secret volumes from the monolithic Soylent corporation through which his buddy Roth (Robinson), a former teacher and "book" (an idea stolen from Fahrenheit 451?), discovers the most-spoiled spoiler in the history of film: [SPOILER] that processed, rationed foodstuff Soylent Green is, in fact, made of people [/SPOILER]. Boilerplate, it's true, based very, very loosely on a Harry Harrison novel (Make Room! Make Room!) more interested in the setting than in proselytizing, Soylent Green spends altogether too much time on Thorn's procedure as he questions folks (like Chuck Connors), wanders around an unfortunately green-tinted exterior set, and flaunts the corruption of the police force of the future. Thorn meets Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), Simonson's hot young residential concubine, whom--because he's Charlton Heston, damnit--he'll later take as his own, although the function of the character seems to be a pretext for calling women "furniture" in a nod to futureshock and weak satirical value. Better satirical value can be mined from the mysterious relationship between Thorn and Roth that is completely, entirely domestic--never mind that in a New York of 44 million people (roughly 6x current levels), the two have a large apartment to themselves, stacked floor-to-ceiling with books and sentiment. Never mind.
Not well thought-out and a genuine disappointment for all its visibility in the popular conversation still, the picture's a showcase, for what it's worth, for Heston's preening, strutting persona of affected drag bravado, bullying his co-stars and buffaloing through every scene no matter how manic. (The more manic, the better.) Of his three sci-fi films of this period, rank Soylent Green as far superior to the honky-madness of The Omega Man and far, far inferior to the still-brilliant Planet of the Apes. Credit for the movie's longevity a remarkable sequence in which Roth visits other members of God's waiting room in an old library, discovers the awful truth, and then declares he's going to seek God at "home," which happens to be a suicide clinic in a repurposed Madison Square Garden that counts among its orderlies a pacific Dick Van Patten. After drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid, Roth settles back on a couch centred in the middle of a Cinerama theatre, listening to selections from Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Grieg while images of the lost Earth project around him. It's here that Roth and Thorn's relationship comes to its surprisingly poignant end--Robinson had confided his terminal condition to Heston to elicit a genuine response--and it's here that Soylent Green fills its promise to engage a conversation about decrepitude and the burden of being human in the midst of civilization's collapse. And when it's over, it's over like a switch flipped--a small tribute, maybe, to Frankenheimer's Seconds, in the same way the movie's opening credits sequence is appropriated in part by the "Parallax Test" from Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View. You just wish the rest of it were as timeless.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner brings Soylent Green to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer that is, considering the anamorphic cinematography, adequately sharp--particularly in interiors--and colourful, with the apartment set and a certain wide shot of Heston atop a trash truck exhibiting a gratifying level of detail. Blacks occasionally crush, but the lack of DVNR makes up for it--even if the ridiculous filters used in daylight exteriors (director Fleischer describes the construction of these filters in his commentary as revolutionary water squibs dyed green) are all the more obvious as in-camera trickery. What would cause green air, anyway? Whatever it is, soybeans and lentils are apparently unaffected. Never mind. This is the best the film's ever looked at home. The centre-channel DTS-HD MA track is a mono presentation that, you know, I was satisfied with completely. Soylent Green isn't a film that would've justified the expense of a from-scratch remix, so the crowd scenes that sound flat in mono for a reason would most likely have sounded flat for no reason in 5.1 surround.
Fleischer and Taylor-Young sit together for a silence-heavy yakker that, alas, isn't silent enough. The late Fleischer is old enough here that he spends way too much time congratulating himself on his treatment of African-Americans in Soylent Green, forgetting I guess that he'd follow it up with Mandingo in a couple of years' time. He says, over and over and over, that he's proud of his "race-mixing" in this film and didn't make a big deal of it. Funny how decades later, he's making a big deal of it. Taylor-Young speaks mostly of how intimidating Heston was and how she never got to know him, though she also says she loved playing a role that spoke so strongly against the "demeanment" of women in the rest of the world (but not America because in America "we're strong in terms of women, obviously"). Later, she marvels at this futureworld's "impersonality" of death. Fleischer, again because he's old, defines terms like "improvisation" for us, repeats at least forty times that Robinson was stone deaf and in the pivotal scene wasn't really seeing images of nature, and calls Taylor-Young "my dear." You almost expect to hear the slurp of soup and the whisk of a ventilator. "A Look at the World of Soylent Green" (10 mins., SD) is a vintage doc that misrepresents the Krell technology from Forbidden Planet as a vision of a human technological future and Robinson's Roth character as a "police investigator." There's some B-roll in there that is utterly uninteresting. Rounding out the disc, "MGM's Tribute to Edward G. Robinson's 101st Film" (5 mins., SD) is footage from the on-set celebration of Robinson's impending death. Originally published: June 21, 2011.