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Soylent Green (1973) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

thorn roth secret film

Principal social themes: environmental issues, censorship, suicide/depression

MGM. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors, Joseph Cotton, Brock Peters, Celia Lovsky, Paula Kelly, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Whit Bissell, Mike Henry, Roy Jenson, Stephen Young, Leonard Stone, Dick Van Patton. Written by Stanley R. Greenberg based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison. Cinematography by Richard H. Kline. Edited by Samuel E. Beetley. Music by Fred Myrow, Ludwig van Beethoven, Edvard Grieg, and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Produced by Walter Seltzer and Russell Thatcher. Directed by Richard Fleisher. Color. 99 minutes.

Overview

Soylent Green was one of a number of science fiction films that addressed environmental issues by depicting possible futures in which life on Earth is threatened because of ecological disasters. Some of these titles include Silent Running (1971), Doomwatch (1972), and Waterworld (1995). Soylent Green , however, is considered the most effective of these endeavors, largely due to the powerful performances by Joseph Cotton, Charlton Heston, and Edward G. Robinson, who gave one of the most poignant and moving death scenes in all cinema filmed just months before his actual demise.

Synopsis

It is the year 2022. Civilization is in a state of near collapse due to many factors including global warming, the breakdown of industry, and overpopulation. Former college professor Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson) now works as an information specialist for a state detective named Thorn (Charlton Heston) in New York City. The population of 40 million New Yorkers are anxious and restless, concerned about cutbacks in the food supply, particularly the popular staple known as Soylent Green. Thorn is assigned to solve the murder of William Simonson (Joseph Cotton), one of the wealthiest men in the city and a member of the board of Soylent, the organization that controls the world’s food supply. Simonson apparently offered no resistance to his killer, who bludgeoned him to death, Thorn is amazed at the size of Simonson’s apartment, which he shared with his bodyguard, Tab Fielding (Chuck Connors) and a female companion (Leigh Taylor-Young), who is regarded as “furniture” and comes with the apartment. Thorn steals some food from Simonson’s refrigerator, including a salad, apples, and a steak. Roth prepares their supper with these ingredients and explains that such meals were once the norm.

Thorn asks Roth to investigate Simonson’s past. He learns that he was obsessed and depressed by some terrible secret. Simonson told his secret to a priest, and when Thorn confronts him, the priest seems on the verge of collapse. Fielding, apparently a member of a secret security force, later kills the priest. Roth consults a group of elders, former scholars led by a woman (Celia Lovsky). They deduce the terrible secret known by Simonson. Roth, depressed by the knowledge, leaves a note for Thorn and heads for a suicide clinic. Thorn breaks into the chamber where Roth is spending the last moments of his life listening to classical music and watching a film of a luxurious world when there were green fields, clean oceans, forests, and wildlife. Thorn is thunder-struck that the earth was ever so beautiful. Roth tells him Simonson’s secret: All life on Earth is dying, even the plankton in the sea. Roth dies peacefully.

Thorn follows Roth’s body as it is loaded onto a truck and transported to a processing plant. There, the detective sees the process by which the corpses are turned into the food wafers known as Soylent Green. Fielding and other troops hunt Thorn, but, although wounded, he manages to fight and kill them. As he is carried to the infirmary, Thorn tells the secret to his supervisor. He continues to shout, “Soylent Green is people,” and he is overheard by a crowd who are disturbed by the news.

Critique

Unlike many other apocalyptic films, Soylent Green is both memorable and effective. The film deals with environmental issues in several ways. The montage sequence that opens the picture shows historic pictures of the development of the automotive industry, an endless flow of cars off the assembly lines, the billowing of clouds of pollutants out of factory smokestacks, and traffic jams with exhaust rising into the atmosphere. Soylent Green was definitely ahead of the curve in promoting the dangers of the greenhouse effect. The other half of the equation is the runaway population explosion, straining the natural resources of the planet until it can no longer support life.

The breakdown of society is depicted in many ways. With industry and technology stalled, old machines simply break down and cannot be repaired due to lack of parts. Many products that are commonplace to the viewing audience, such as strawberries, apples, and shower stalls, are regarded as remarkable luxuries to the characters in the film. In one ironic line, Heston sneaks a puff on a cigarette from a girl in Simonson’s apartment building and remarks, “If I were rich enough, I would smoke two, maybe three of these every day.” Of all the losses, the most poignant are those of the ordinary scenes of nature, forests, oceans, flocks of birds, and schools of fish that are revealed in the deathbed documentary viewed by Edward G. Robinson. Obviously, all such images are forbidden for public viewing and permitted only as a treat for the dying after they drink poison. This censorship had to be in place for some time, with all films and books with scenes of nature destroyed so the public would not be reminded how the earth was devastated by the governments of the nations of the world. Finally, suicide, or “leave-taking,” has been transformed into a celebratory ritual. Those choosing to die are catered to, provided with their favorite color scheme, favorite music, and a full twenty-minute film showing the wonders of the planet before the environment was devastated by pollution, climate change, and abuse. Robinson’s and Heston’s reactions to this cinerama presentation, accompanied by music from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony , are remarkable and unforgettable. In some ways, Soylent Green stresses the frail beauty and importance of nature with more impact than any other film in history.

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