Retro Review | Soylent Green (1973)

Retro Review | Soylent Green (1973)


In a future ravaged by global warming, a New York detective uncovers a conspiracy that will shock the world.

Background

My father recently asked if I watched an old film, Soylent Green. I replied that I knew of its existence very well but I hadn’t ever watched the whole film, just seen segments on late night television.

Having heard my father enjoyed the film, I tracked down a copy and decided to watch it for myself. I already knew the basic plot including the twist ending.

This is one of the problems watching the film today, who doesn’t know the big twist? It’s been used in memes and referenced numerous times in other media. A film over forty years old has been spoiled for me several times over.

Despite this, I decided to watch the film to see if the journey was just as enjoyable as the destination.


Synopsis

In a densely overpopulated, starving New York City of the future, NYPD detective Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) investigates the murder of an executive at rations manufacturer Soylent Corporation. With the help of elderly academic Solomon “Sol” Roth (Edward G. Robinson), Thorn begins to make real progress — until the governor mysteriously pulls the plug. Obsessed with the mystery, Thorn steps out from behind the badge and launches his own investigation into the murder.


My Thoughts

Although released in 1973, the film opens with a message and narrative that has been largely ignored by the world until a few years ago.

With the use of photographs, an opening montage depicts a world that descended into chaos because of global warming.

The film opens in the year 2022, our setting New York. The city’s population has grown to 44 million people (to put that in perspective, the 2016 count was only 8.5 million).

The lucky ones get a whole room in a building as a home, others live in the corridors, sleep on the stairs. The majority live on the streets, maybe using what materials they can find to build a ramshackle shelter. Cars which are now useless serve as homes to many.


Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson


Due to this global crisis, resources are strictly rationed. The only food available is manufactured by a company known as Soylent. They produce coloured food chips from the plankton harvested from the seas.

I presume different flavours are represented by colours, this is never made clear. The newest variety is green and is proving to be extremely popular.

But as always with these situations, there is always the other half, the rich and powerful. They live in high-rise buildings away from the slums.

Their money allows them to buy fresh vegetables and fruits, sometimes even real meat. They have running water, hot and cold, and think nothing of it.

In a story point I found very bizarre, each apartment in the building comes with a girl, usually referred to as furniture. These young girls are essentially escorts who live in the apartment, keeping the rich men happy. If the men don’t like the girls, they can be rid of them and choose a companion they do find attractive.

Our story begins when one of these tenants is murdered by a man from the slums who has been hired to do so.

The hero of the story is a New York detective Robert Thorn who is sent to investigate. When he learnt that the murder victim was on the board of directors at Soylent, he realises this was a lot more than just a random burglary gone wrong.

Thorn lives with Solomon Roth who used to be a professor in the old days. He assists Thorn in his investigations by trawling through old books and paperwork to try and connect the clues that have been discovered.

However, just as progress in the case is just being made, Thorn is called in to see his supervisor who tells him the case is officially closed with orders from the city’s governor.

Thorn refuses to accept this and decides to investigate further on his own.


Mmmm, delicious Soylent green.


The opening of the film genuinely surprised me as I had no idea that the concept of global warming had been known for so long. Despite the view of the world being strictly limited in this film to either rich apartments or the slums of New York, we do hear important details through the characters dialogue.

Apparently, the world is a stuck in a continual summer heat wave all year long. The only farms that exist are heavily guarded to protect the land and produce. A company called Soylent produces food for most of the world by sending out harvesting ships to collect plankton.

Robert Thorn maybe a detective but in a world such as this, there aren’t exactly strict rules to follow. Every time he visits one of these rich apartments he often takes what he can and shares it with Solomon.

I’m not talking about material items such as jewellery for example but common products that have become a luxury to the poor. On his first visit to the murder victim’s apartment, he takes some sheets of new paper, a bottle of bourbon and a bar of soap.

For reasons I can’t fathom, maybe it’s time of production or from the original source material, the young girls, the ”furniture”, are treated like sex objects and Thorn jumps into bed with the one who lived with the murder victim, offering herself to him on a whim as if it’s normal practice.

Thorn really isn’t afraid to take what he can, when he can.

The lead roles of Thorn and Solomon are played by Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson respectively. They’re great on screen together and made the film very enjoyable to watch.

The rest of the cast were also of a high quality including the young girls. It’s just a shame they’re reduced to wearing slinky figure-hugging material and playing parts that just bugged me as being so sexist.


Riot control has become rather extreme in the future.


The other let down for me was the ending. Whilst I already knew the plot twist which obviously spoils the ending, it is one of those films that I think finishes too early.

If you are going into this film blind then it may come as a revelation, therefore increasing your enjoyment of the story. However, once the twist is revealed the story ends shortly thereafter.

I desperately wanted for the story to continue to see how this additional information would have played out. In theory, Thorn could have made a difference or the powers that be might have shut him up. The film ends with Thorn screaming he has proof of his discovery but I couldn’t see what that was.


A sci-fi film that uses elements that are even more apparent today than they were more than forty years ago. Subtract one star if you already know the ending.



John Abbitt

About the author | John Abbitt

@UKFilmNerd | John loves the movies and he used to write for his own website, The Tydirium Hangar Bay, in the late 1990's. Whilst the web page idea became lost in the passages of time, John's love of film did not. Now he's back, writing for The Unheard Nerd.