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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Soylent Green

This is the big sci-fi film of 1973 and one of the major landmark films of the 70s. Soylent Green (SG) is a quintessential 70s sci-fi, with its blend of environment messages, dystopia, overpopulation themes and counter-culture suspicion of big corporations. It stars Charlton Heston as Detective Thorn and Edward G. Robinson, in his last film. Other famous actors in supporting roles include: Joseph Cotton, Whit Bissell, Chuck Connors and Dick van Patten (in a very minor role). The mood is very dystopic -- so popular in the early 70s.

Quick Plot Synopsis
In the year 2022, the earth is over crowded and resources depleated. A wealthy man named Simonson (Cotton) is assassinated in his luxury apartment. He expected it. Detective Thorn investigates and has a hunch it was not a robbery gone bad, but murder. Thorn suspects the bodyguard (Conners) is somehow in on it. He concludes that the young and voluptuous Shirl (Simonson's leased-babe) is just voluptuous. Thorn also knows he's onto something because he's being followed. Thorn lifted a couple books (and fresh food) from Simonson's apartment too. Thorn's old roommate Sol (Robinson) puzzles over the oceanographic reports. Various leads provide only tantalizing small pieces of the puzzle. Simonson was on the board of directors of Soylent Industries to make most of the world's synthetic food. Governor Santini was also his partner. A priest herd Simonson's last confession, and is found dead. Tab, the boddyguard, is in on it and out to get Thorn. The simpleton assassin who killed Simonson is also after Thorn. Sol and his circle of elderly book readers have deduced the truth. It is too horrible for Sol to bear, so he checks in to a euthanasia clinic to end it all. In his last moments, he whispers to Thorn the truth. Thorn follows Sol's body on trash trucks to a Disposal Plant, but it turns out they don't dispose of the bodies, but melt them down and make Soylent Green out of them. Thorn is discovered, but escapes. Tab finds him and almost kills him before Thorn kills Tab. As the wounded Thorn is taken out of the crowded poor-house (a church), he shouts that "Soylent Green is people!" Freeze frame. Roll credits. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Truth be told, SG is kind of a depressing film. Nothing gets better. The interesting part is all the layers of prophesying about the doom awaiting mankind. Greenberg's screenplay and Fleischer's directing give a powerful dystopic image of our future.

Cultural Connection
One of the significant things about SG, is that it manages to be a pupu platter of so many popular 70s activist issues without letting any one of them hijack the story into a maudlin polemic. Within SG, viewers will find: income inequality, oppression of women, global warming, environmental crash, evil corporations, evil politicians, police corruption and euthanasia. (More on those below.) These issues would remain hot button issues for the political-left for decades afterward. Many would get their own cause-celebre films, but SG managed to have almost all of them

Based on the Book -- Stanley Greenberg's screenplay is only loosely based on a 1966 novel by Harry Harrison, entitled "Make Room! Make Room!". The two are quite different stories, but have several elements in common. Overpopulation and poverty are there, but no cannibalism. The book has "soylent steaks" but they're veggieburger made of soy and lentils. Greenberg's story really stands on its own.

Rich v Poor -- The contrast between rich and poor is old in sci-fi. Metropolis (1927) featured the two worlds of the rich elite and the poor workers. The poor are shown sleeping on tenement stairways and in abandoned cars. The rich are shown with clean, spacious apartments. The poor wait in long lines for a half a kilo of synthetic food. The rich have an underground market for real vegetables and meat. The aspiring middle class, typified by Tab's apartment, is just a little bit less shabby, somewhat private, and since he's in cohoots with "the man," he's rich enough to buy $150 strawberry jam. Viewers are subtly encouraged to pity the poor and despise the rich.

Overpopulation -- This had become a more mainstream issue in the late '60s with Paul Ehrlich's book, "The Population Bomb." This trope showed up in several other films already. Z.P.G. was the more blatant of them. Ehrlich, and his disciples, gloomily predicted terrible doom within a decade, In '68, doom would come in the mid-70s. His doom never came. In fact, the opening text in SG announces that by 2022, the earth has 7 billion inhabitants, so in the movie, there's nowhere to put them and they sleep on the stairs and in parking lots, etc. But, the earth reached 7 billion in March of 2012 -- 10 years ahead of SG's dire prediction. Yet, social order has not collapsed into dystopia.

Global Warming -- This issue doesn't get much screen time, but it's there. Watch for allusions to it always being hot. When Shirl suggests turning on the air conditioner, she enthuses that they can make it snow (indoors), like the snow of the before-times. In 2022, it is always hot.

Police Corruption -- Even though Thorn is a dedicated cop and essentially on the side of law and order, it is apparently routine for cops to skim some graft wherever they go. While checking out the crime scene, Thorn takes some food, demands whisky, etc. He takes soap and towels and books for Sol. Later, he takes advantage of Shirl's furniture status. All part of the system. Viewers are expected to be shocked at the immoral cops.

Women as Property -- Shirl, and many others, are property. Thorn calls them "furniture." They come with the apartment, for use by the renter. All of the apartments in the building (run by Charles) have their own female furniture. They are so accustomed to being servile property that Thorn only has to suggest a bit of casual graft on his part includes sex with Shirl. She goes along with it, answering his questions, as if it were of no more import than peeling an orange.Even Tab, the aspiring middle-class man, has his own 'kept' woman' -- Martha. She flirts with Thorn, as if her only real reason to exist is to please a man -- any man. Viewers are expected to be shocked at seeing women as commodities.

Euthanasia -- An erie part of the screenplay is that old people are encouraged to commit suicide for the betterment of mankind. There is a large, clean facility call "Home" which checks in the elderly as if at a hotel. They get to pick their favorite colors, music and images. They lay on a raised bed, sip the poison, the lie back and enjoy the widescreen-surround-sound show for their last comfortable 20 minutes. All quite routine.

Corrupt Power -- The crux of the movie, is that the (evil) corporate and political establishment have lied about making Soylent Green out of plankton. The truth is that mankind polluted the oceans and killed the plankton too. On top of that, they figured out a way to recycle dead people to make food. Thorn rightly warns people that this means the (evil) authorities' next step is to regard the poor as livestock to be tended and harvested.

Riot Control -- In an era of war protests, the intervention of The Scoops is a chilling visual. Trash trucks with front-end loader scoops drive into the mass of protesters. The trucks scoop up a load of people and dump them in their boxes. The masses have been devalued to the point of being rubbish which must be cleared away. Viewers are expected to horrified at what lengths The Man will go to.

Appropriate End -- As a footnote, SG was Edward G. Robinson's last film. While SG was filming, he was dying of cancer. This lends some real and unintended poignancy to his final scene in the euthanasia chamber. His last few feet of film, are him acting out his own death. He died a couple weeks after filming was done.

Bottom line? SG is one of those must-see films -- even for those who aren't sci-fi fans. It is a powerful story and much more of a social commentary than a monsters-and-aliens film. Heston and Robinson provide good performances. Director Richard Fleischer provides compelling visuals. Screenwriter Stanley Greenberg provides a deep story with many layers of subtext. SG is not only worth watching, it's worth watching several times to explore it's many minor threads.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

It is a very depressing movie. Nice to see Celia Lovsky in the scientist role. Many will recognize her as T'Pau of Vulcan, but few are aware that she was the wife of Peter Lorre.

The chilling thing to me is that once it's revealed that SG is people, I realized that the Scoops were ironically harvesting people as well, people who were rioting because they couldn't get enough of SG.