Sunday, October 14, 2012

'Soylent Green' is People Pleasing: "Soylent Green" (1973)

Charlton Heston, not letting "Ben-Hur" be the crowning achievement of his career, made some pretty bold moves late in his life. With "Planet of the Apes," "The Omega Man," "In the Mouth of Madness," and even a funny guest host stint on "Saturday Night Live," you can never say he plays it safe while most of his contemporaries are lounging by a pool in Palm Springs.

"Soylent Green," released in 1973, is one of his odd choices. Heston is Thorn, a police detective in New York City. This is the New York City of 2022, with a population of forty million people and no room or food. The overheated masses must subsist on Soylent, a food derived from alternate foods like soy, lentils, and barnacles. Thorn lives with Sol (Edward G. Robinson), his researcher. The police must deal with such an overabundance of murder and crime, the assignments are freelance. Sol talks of the good ol' days, when vegetables and beef were plentiful.

Thorn investigates the brutal beating murder of the very rich Simonson (Joseph Cotten). Simonson is so rich, he can afford most of the things we take for granted today- canned food, steak, hot and cold running water, and a nice apartment. The apartment comes furnished in the future, not only with bad '70's inspired design, but Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young). Women are passed on from one tenant to another as part of the apartment's belongings, resulting in them being labeled as "furniture." Shirl got along well with Simonson, as well as Simonson's security guard Fielding (Chuck Connors).

I am not giving away to much here, as the film makers make no secret of it- Simonson had a guilty conscience and was dispatched by a man hired by the current governor. Both men are founders and board members of the soylent making corporation, and Thorn begins to investigate the murder. Thorn also has time to dally with Shirl, experiencing the life of the rich man for brief periods of time. Sol soon discovers the secret behind soylent, as Thorn discovers people are out to kill him at all costs.

Although this came out thirty years ago, "Soylent Green" has a freshness to it thanks to its lack of big budget effects. The viewer is thrown into this world of the future without any real prior history to go on, and must figure out what different lines mean and how the characters react to each other. Nothing is spelled out, and that is refreshing. Fleischer's direction is good, making the crowd scenes work without trying to turn this into an unwieldy, obvious epic. The green tinged daytime scenes are spooky.

The entire cast here is fantastic. Heston can be relied on to play this type of role to the hilt. He is not particularly likable, having suffered through life up until this point, and again, that is refreshing. Robinson is good as Sol, he and Heston work well together. Taylor-Young does a lot with an almost thankless role- literally a woman as an object, sexual or otherwise. Chuck Connors is a big bad meanie villain, a role he should have played more often. The rest of the cast includes Brock Peters and Dick Van Patten.

There are many individual scenes here that play so well. Thorn looting Simonson's apartment while "investigating" really lets us in on his personality. Sol and Thorn enjoying their first real meal together is classic. People have not enjoyed their food so much since "Tom Jones." The riot scene, when a food shop runs out of soylent green, is great. Innocent people are being scooped up and dumped into garbage trucks as an assassin tries to kill Thorn. There is even a moving transition as Thorn and Shirl enjoy a hot shower together, laughing, followed immediately by Thorn untying a crying child from its dead mother and taking it to an overcrowded church where Simonson may have confessed his secret. Thorn and Fielding's fist fight is another standout. Watch for Van Patten in a serious role monitoring Sol's "final ceremony".

"Soylent Green" does suffer from art direction and set decoration that was done depending on what the 1970's would look like in fifty years- and it ain't pretty. Heston holds the film together so well, a minor quibble can be forgiven.

Through the years, you may have found out what the secret of soylent green is, but that does not detract from this sci-fi ride to get there. I recommend it. (* * * *) out of five stars.