Saturday, 20 September 2014

Do androids eat electric sheep? Soylent Green (1973)

This film has haunted me since I saw the poster stuck on the side of cinemas in Liverpool and Blackpool as a child… I was far too young to see it but the images of an over-crowded future population fighting for food obviously chimed with my nascent awareness of these issues. Has it really been over forty years since Hollywood started to take climate change and over-population seriously?

Legendary sci-fi author Harry Harrison was clearly ahead of the pack with his 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! But then Malthus got there first. Soylent Green is an adaptation of Harris’ book and was another chance for Charlton Heston to rail against “the fools, the damn fools…” that were spoiling humanity’s future (some of them carried arms Mr Heston) after his previous movie encounter with the “monkey planet”.

Another green world altogether...
Directed by Richard Fleischer the film is a grimy police-procedural in the manner of Blade Runner several years later although it lacks the latter’s period charm and invention.  It is 2022 and there are 40 million people living in New York or, in many cases, just surviving.

There is little food and so the majority live of a combination of soya and lentil, “soylent” which is delivered to the largely homeless masses in bulk deliveries protected by the local police. One of these officers, Thorn (Charlton Heston), lives in a cramped apartment with an old man Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson in his last film). They’re an odd couple and we’re never quite sure of their connection: Sol’s an intellectual, a reader and thinker whilst Thorn keeps the peace, just about.

Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson
He has to clamber over dozens of people somehow living on the stairs of his building and outside the air is thick with pollution: the World’s gone green but not in a good way.

A young man is seen collecting an ice pick from another in a run-down area - it’s not looking good for someone, somewhere…

How the other, 100,000th, live
But, just when we think New York is a mass slum, we’re shown the wealthy few who exist behind high concrete walls in plush modern apartments. A young woman Shirl (the lovely Leigh Taylor-Young) is shown playing a computer game which looks suspiciously like the early arcade classic Asteroids! She turns and smiles at an older man, Simonson (Joseph Cotten).  Simonson is an important man involved in one of the businesses that keeps the new world spinning, Shilr is “furniture” - part of the live-in luxuries of the apartment block..     It’s better than the outside.

Shirl plays Asteroids
Simonson has a body guard, Fielding (Chuck Connors) who takes Shirl off shopping – they but some meat and it’s clearly a rare occasion. Whilst they are away the young man with the ice pick gains access and kills a strangely accepting Simonson: whatever he’s hiding, he clearly agrees it’s worth killing for.

Chuck Connors and Leigh Taylor-Young
Enter Thorn, who arrives to investigate the crime and to relieve the property of whatever little treats he can. Morality has clearly been impacted by the circumstances and whilst Thorn has a job to do – he’s lucky he has one at all – he sees nothing wrong in getting what he can. And yes, he has noticed the rather smart furniture and will return for a more complete viewing.

He returns home where he and Sol enjoy a splendid meal made from the meat Shirl had bought.

Brock Peters and Charlton Heston

He reports back to his commander, Hatcher (Brock Peters) and following a hunch that Fielding is somehow involved pays a visit to his flat where he finds his lover Martha (Paula Kelly), eating strawberries from a jar… that is expensive jam indeed. Something’s afoot.

Thorn goes rooting for clues... Martha hides her jam.
Thorn goes back to Shirl in the apartment and finds her hosting a party for all the buildings “furniture”, the commissar beats them in disapproval but Thorn wards him off… a good heart after all? Thorn and Shirl get closer but there are forces at work beyond just the obvious…

As in all goof cop stories, Thorn’s superiors try to ward him off the case: there’s no mystery he’s told, just a routine break in that went wrong. By Thorn’s not convinced: Simonson didn’t put up a fight and there’s nothing valuable missing. Like all good cops told to lay off he digs in deeper: his instincts being proved correct when someone tries to kill him at a food riot – it’s the man who killed Simonson (although Thorn doesn’t know it…).

Leigh Taylor-Young
How is this all connected and how is the sinister looking Mayor Santini (Whit Bissell) involved? There’s something rotten in City Hall and mush more besides…

Thorn had presented Sol with a large book from Simonson’s flat – a detailed analysis connected with Soylent Green, the new superfood. Sol takes it to a group of elders who preserve what they can of the old learnings in an old public library: there’s an awful truth that not only keeps society going but which could threaten its very existence.

The book group...
Sol is stunned as he leaves the group and then signs in at a mass euthanasia hospital: is he giving up or is he looking for more answers. Thorn arrives just as the process is beginning and as images of old green, vibrant Earth are projected around the dying old man, he gives his friend the direction he needs to solve the puzzle…

No spoilers…
What is the secret of Soylent Green?
Dusty verdict: Soylent Green doesn’t have the techno-flash of Blade Runner or that film’s more open-ended and un-resolved fundamentals. It’s a well-told police procedural mixed with some striking images of how the world might become but there’s an edge of tension missing in comparison to the later film. Perhaps Charlton Heston is the wrong kind of lead maybe he’s just too much of a hero to be the slightly self-serving Thorn. He’s certainly a tad too old for Shirl.

Too old? Charming...
That’s not to say that he doesn’t act well and, whilst his chemistry with Leigh Taylor-Young doesn’t entirely work his scenes with Edward G Robinson are engrossing. Robinson was a true great and died not long after filming was completed making his cinematic death scene all the more poignant. Needless to say Edward G is superbly moving.

Richard Fleischer directs well creating a run-down world of dowdy contrasts as Richard H. Kline cinematography sees New York cloaked in a haze of green smog. The claustrophobic uncertainty is completed by an anxious electronic score from Fred Myrow.

Sol sees the World as it was
Overall, I’ll keep my VHS and transfer it to digital media… it seems fitting technologically: Soylent Green’s world is not hi-tech and Blu-ray but rather techno-make-do and mend: it just about works.                    

But if you want the clean screen view, Soylent Green is available on DVD and Blu-Ray form Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. “Democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, but it disappears.” - Isaac Asimov

    “They’re an odd couple and we’re never quite sure of their connection”

    Here, people are things: Shirl is “furniture,” and Sol is a “book,” a human library-computer. (Brock Peters tells Thorn he’ll need a new “book” soon.) And of course, in the end we find out what other “thing” they are also…

    [C Heston and E G Robinson went back a long way: Mr Robinson was to be Dr Zaius in ‘Planet of the Apes,’ but ill health prevented it. Here, at Sol’s passing Mr Heston’s tears are genuine: Mr Robinson was in fact already dying, of cancer.]