Sci-Fi Classic Review: SOYLENT GREEN (1973)


In the far-flung future of 2022, mankind
is losing the battle to feed itself. In New York City, the population has
exploded to 40 million people and there is hardly room to breathe.
A company called Soylent is doing its best to feed the masses, but it has a
terrible secret, one that people would kill to protect. Enter detective Frank Thorne, who is tasked with investigating the
murder of a rich industrialist, and who begins unraveling a conspiracy that must
be seen to be believed. Before we begin, make sure to hit that
like button, and if you really do like what I’m doing here, don’t forget to
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out there, and I could really use your support before I have to resort to
cannibalism, so thank you in advance. With that out of the way, let’s get back to
the subject at hand. As the sub-genre of eco-fiction began taking hold of science-fiction in the late 60s, writer Harry Harrison published a serialized novel
called “Make Room! Make Room!,” a dystopic portrait of an overcrowded 1999, where
humanity has outgrown its capacity to cultivate resources or provide adequate
infrastructure. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, the press agent and film producer Walter
Seltzer was becoming good friends with rising star Charlton Heston, with whom he
would go on to collaborate on a total of seven films before Seltzer’s retirement
in 1976. Seltzer and Heston had massive political differences but they agreed on
one thing: overpopulation was the most important problem facing the modern
world. Thus, they set out to make movies highlighting the problem. starting with
1971’s the Omega Man. Following that movie’s success, they approached Russell
Thatcher and MGM with the idea of adapting Harry Harrison’s “Make Room! Make Room!” And so MGM bought the rights from
Harrison. A screenplay was commissioned from playwright Stanley Greenberg, known
at the time for his regular work on television shows like The Nurses and The
Defenders. He kept the core concepts of the book intact but made a few
significant changes, most notably inserting the big reveal at the end
about Soylent Green. “Soylent Green” was also the new title
after MGM feared using the book’s, “Make Room! Make Room!,” would confuse people into
thinking it was a film version of the popular television series, Make Room for
Granddaddy. Harrison absolutely hated Greenberg’s script and felt cheated by MGM,
but he had no legal standing on which to protest his inability to offer any
creative input. Despite this bad blood, MGM let him visit
the set a few times and hand out copies of his book to the cast and crew. With
the script in place, Richard Fleischer, known for directing films like 20,000
Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage and Tora! Tora! Tora!, was
tapped to direct. Heston naturally signed on to play the lead, a corrupt police
detective whose investigation into the mysterious death of a rich upper-class
politician leads him to learn the secret of Soylent Green. This was an unusual
role for Heston, because Detective Thorne is a noir-style antihero who doesn’t
overtly rally against his dystopic society or show any sense of high
morality. He lies, steals, cheats, and even kills, all
while being dirty and sweaty in pretty much every scene. Heston had played
anti-heroes and misanthropes in the past, but Thorne is almost irredeemable by
civilized standards, a product of the broken and dying society he is a part of.
The film’s humanity, therefore, is reserved for Heston’s co-star: the
legendary Edward G Robinson, a brilliant Hollywood star who had been famous since
the early 30s with his breakout performance in Little Caesar. Robinson
and Heston had worked together before–on the Ten Commandments and during
pre-production on Planet of the Apes–and their friendship strengthens every scene
in which they are together. When he read the script for Soylent Green, Robinson
was eager to do it, believing the film to be more meaningful than the standard
Hollywood fare. In the movie, Robinson plays Sol, Thorne’s roommate, an elderly
scholar who has lived long enough to remember what the world was like before
things started falling apart. Robinson was almost entirely deaf during filming,
relying on visual cues and memorized timing to deliver his performance. There
were times where Fleischer would call “cut” in the middle of a scene, but
Robinson, not hearing it, would keep going until somebody physically stopped him. He
also had a clause in his contract that limited the amount of hours he would
work in a day, and it was obvious to all that he was having health issues.
He was a consummate professional, though, and his acting is easily the film’s
highlight, even outshining the great Charlton Heston. Unbeknownst to the cast
and crew, however, Robinson, suffering from late stage bladder cancer, was in fact
dying during the film’s production, and he knew it.
Soylent Green was his one hundred and first screen performance, and also his
last as he died 10 days after principal photography was completed. Sol is the
sentimental heart of the picture, with his death scene marking the emotional
and thematic climax of the film. It was also the last scene Robinson ever
performed, and though Heston was unaware of Robinson’s condition during filming,
he has since recalled that it was one of the most emotional scenes he’s ever been
a part of. Robinson’s wife, who had been a regular presence throughout production,
refused to show up for it, knowing that she simply wouldn’t be able to take
watching her husband pretend to die, knowing that he would be dying in real
life not long after. For the female lead of Shurl,
the furniture girl who has lost her owner and attaches herself to Detective
Thorn, economics-student-turned-actress Leigh Taylor-Young was hired. Taylor-Young
got her big break in the soap opera Peyton Place, as a replacement for Mia
Farrow, before moving on to work in film throughout the late 60’s and early 70’s in
movies like I Love You, Alice B. Toklas and The Big Bounce. Soylent Green would
prove to be her most famous work, though I absolutely have to talk about her life
in the years that followed it. She largely quit acting for many years after
Soylent Green, and though she did continue acting in the 80’s and
beyond–even earning an Emmy for her work in Picket Fences–she has done much more
than act. She became a special advisor for the UN, focusing on environmental
issues and the media. She’s been a representative for numerous
charitable organizations and corporations, as well as acting as a kind
of spiritual self-help guru, with audio meditations and other forms of
consciousness-raising based on the ideas of the Movement of Spiritual Inner
Awareness. She even presented one such meditation to the UN. An ordained
minister since the mid 70’s, she currently works with John Morton Ministries, which
is devoted to “spiritual awareness, individual and world peace, and
charitable service to others.” Oh, and the leader of the organisation, John
Morton, is her husband/life partner. She goes by the name Leigh
Taylor-Young Morton now. “Hello. I’m Leigh Taylor-Young, and today I am
visiting the Peace Awareness Labyrinth and Gardens.” Getting back to Soylent Green,
though, her character represents one of the most interesting and controversial
additions to the story: its treatment of women. The dystopia of Soylent Green is
much more than just a parable about scarcity and overpopulation; it also
touches on dehumanization, how environmental problems can cause social
collapse and lead to regressions in government and human rights. In the same
year as Roe v. Wade, while the president was pushing states to ratify the Equal
Rights Amendment, Soylent Green dared to show people a future in which the sexual
revolution had been utterly lost by women, who were now treated not just as
slaves but as actual furniture. Many exterior shots were filmed on an old MGM
backlot, and Soylent Green was the last film to use it before it was torn down.
This lends the outdoor sets an air of past glory and creeping decrepitude,
which is absolutely what the film was going for. During filming, Fleischer
inserted an improvised scene in which Thorn and Sol share a meal together to
demonstrate how little Thorn knows about real food and how fondly Sol remembers
it. Also, this videogame cabinet for Computer Space–a real game designed by
the same guy who made Pong and founded Atari–is actually the first instance of
a video game appearing in a major motion picture. Soylent Green released in April of 1973
and earned a domestic box office gross of around 3.6 million dollars. While I can’t
find reliable information about the film’s budget,
it seems the film made a small profit, though not enough to be considered much of a
hit. Similarly, it received mixed reviews at the time that trended more positive
than negative, with consistent praises given to the acting. However, Soylent
Green would go on to be a cultural landmark. It is one of the best examples
of eco-fiction in film and is consistently referenced in pop culture
to this day. Disturbingly, there’s even a meal replacement shake on the market
named “Soylent,” with an advertising campaign that seems just a little too
on-the-nose to be a coincidence. Ok, now for the part where I’m going to get
political, so let me offer one last warning: I am about to share my opinions
on a thorny, politically-charged topic. If you can’t handle that,
feel free to skip ahead to this time: Still here?
Alright then. [prepatory deep breath] While
overpopulation and its associated problems are real, especially in the more
disadvantaged parts of the world such as sub-Saharan Africa and certain parts of
Asia, the real world predictions made by the so called experts like Paul Ehrlich–
whose treatise on overpopulation, 1968’s The Population Bomb, is still cited as a
seminal and important work of environmentalist literature–proved to be
way off the mark. Worse still, the alarmism such
predictions sparked led to well-documented human rights abuses like
forced sterilization campaigns in Mexico, Egypt, Pakistan, Peru, and elsewhere, not to
mention the now dead one-child policy of China and its associated horrors. The
numbers consistently show that, in the developed world at least, overpopulation
is an exaggerated fear. Through technological advancements, gradual
social change, and improved agriculture, populations tend to stabilize before
they outgrow the available resources. Humanity as a whole is more prosperous
today than it was yesterday, and that trend is more persistent than the
rapidly slowing trend of population growth. Ehrlich himself famously
predicted that the world would basically end by the mid-80’s, that overpopulation
would become so extreme that even Soylent Green’s vision of 2022 would prove
to be optimistic. People just happen to find dire predictions more compelling
than mundanely positive ones, no matter how many times they’re proven wrong.
That’s human nature. I don’t lay any of these politics at Soylent Green’s feet,
though. As a dystopia, it is of course a dramatic exaggeration designed to make a
salient point about society and humanity, a point that is still perfectly valid
and provocative. Indeed, there are parts of the world today that look an awful
lot like the crowded and corrupt New York City of Soylent Green, and it’s not
hard to imagine a societal breakdown of some sort that could get even the most
advanced parts of the world to that point in a short amount of time,
especially in conjunction with manmade climate change, the dangers of
agricultural monoculture, urban desertification, political corruption,
dehumanization campaigns, and the anti-GMO movement doing its best to prevent
science from solving world hunger. In its own way, Soylent Green is certainly
just as prescient and relevant now as it was in 1973, perhaps even moreso.
Besides, it’s a good movie on its own merits. It’s just that alarmism, in the real
world, should always be taken with a grain of salt. Concern and activism are
good things, but panic inevitably leads to disaster, especially when heavy-handed
governments get involved. When people start demanding that action be taken to
“control the population,” as Richard Fleischer does during the audio
commentary of his film, that should be far scarier than overpopulation. Perhaps
this is why I prefer conservationism to environmentalism, why I’m more likely to
queue up Silent Running than I am Soylent Green. Anyway, I’m sure many of
you passionately disagree with me, and you can feel free to rant about it in
the comments below. Just try to keep it civil, please. Regardless of the
underlying politics, Soylent Green is a well-made film that shouldn’t be
dismissed. Heston and Seltzer set out to make an
important film that had something to say, and they succeeded, whether you agree
with them or not. It presents one of the most well-realized and terrifying
dystopias ever put to film, and it comes from a time and place of deep concern
and social turmoil. No matter what you take away from it, Soylent Green is sure
to make a lasting impression. And that’s all for today, my fellow earthlings.
What do you think: is Soylent Green the best sci-fi environmentalist movie, or are you
more keen on something more contemporary like Avatar, The Day After Tomorrow, or
even Wall-E? Let me know in the comments. In the meantime, don’t forget to like and
subscribe, if you haven’t done so already, and make sure to check out my Patreon,
where you can get your name in the credits, vote on future video topics, and
much more. I also have a website at emagill.com, where you can find plenty of
written reviews of sci-fi classics in both film and literature. Until next time,
when we’ll be visiting a certain horror- filled island, this is The Unapologetic
Geek, telling you to never be ashamed of what you love, as long as you’re not
hurting anybody. “I like you. You’re a hell of a piece of furniture.”

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Reader Comments

  1. Kyle Curry

    A very underrated sci-fi cult classic with a lot of social ,political and environmental commentary… just like the other cult classic The Omega Man. Thank you for your objective views and I agree with you.

  2. Kyle Curry

    I forgot to mention I am a huge fan of your channel. I love how you do reviews of old-school classic sci-fi horror movie & cult movies. Love it keep them coming and thank you.

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