This week is Soylent Green, a dystopian from the 70's about overpopulation and, um, questionable eating choices. I've seen bits and pieces of this movie over the years but I don't think I ever saw the whole thing. And I was surprised a few times how effective this movie was at certain themes... but we'll get to that. At any rate, most people probably already know the "secret" of the movie, but if not I won't spoil it quite yet. We have to get there. So let's set the stage, shall we?
The year is 2022 and the scene is New York City- population 40,000,000. And the earth is a mess thanks to overcrowding and pollution, the climate is basically tanked and there's no food. A corporation called Soylent provides synthetic food for half the world's population, mainly Soylent Yellow and Soylent Red. But hey a new product has come out- Soylent Green! It's in short supply though, because the plankton it's made from is also in short supply. See where this is going?
Charlton Heston plays Frank Thorn, a NYC detective called to investigate a murder. The murderee is Simonson, a wealthy guy who gets his head bashed in by some loser named Gilbert, who was in turn hired by an asshole named Donovan. Gilbert snuck in thanks to shitty security at Chelsea Towers, where Simonson lives, but Simonson doesn't seem surprised by his assassin's appearance. Almost as if he knew it was coming? Gilbert tells him "they" are sorry but that he'd become unreliable, and Simonson agrees. Pretty brutal way to die.
Thorn gets there to investigate but before that we get some more worldbuilding. Thorn has to jump over bodies on the stairwell to get out of his building- apparently people just sleep wherever. And the power intermittently goes out, and everything's this filthy shade of yellow- it's all hazy. There's not enough food, obviously, but Tuesday is Soylent Green day! On Tuesday you can get some of the Green, which is way more nutritious and delicious than the older Soylent products. Yay!
Also Thorn lives with an older dude named Sol who is a police analyst and does all the research for Thorn's cases. They call these analysts "books" and they meet occasionally at a place called The Exchange- which I guess looks like an old library? Books are super rare now too, by the way, since apparently there is no paper. Anyway their relationship is interesting, they're apparently not related but almost have a father/ son like dynamic?
Thorn's kind of an asshole, by the way, but he seems to know the drill at Chelsea Towers- he immediately suspects Simonson's bodyguard of being involved, not least because the bodyguard was away when the guy was murdered. The bodyguard- Tab Fielding- seems questionable anyway. The other occupant of Simonson's abode is Shirl (played by Leigh Taylor- Young)- she is what is called "furniture", a concubine who basically comes with the apartment. Nice, huh? They even call them furniture, like they're not people. Shirl's kinda hot though (yeah I know the actress is in her 70's now) but she had it kinda going on-and you can tell Thorn is smitten.
Oh, and Thorn takes literally everything not nailed down! Apparently this is standard procedure, because when Thorn's boss asks him about it later, he just laughs when Thorn admits he took everything he could. Corruption is sadly endemic in this world of 2022. Although in his defense these rich guys live like kings with all the luxuries, including *gasp* real food! Thorn brings home apples, among other things, and even a side of real beef (which Shirl had bought for Simonson, who she actually cared about, before he died).
Let's talk about the furniture for a minute. I mean, that's just whacked, but it's one of those things the film makes you think about. Shirl was happy with Simonson- he was nice to her- but that's not the point, is it? These women have no agency- some furniture belongs to the person, others (like Shirl) come with the apartment. So she now "belongs" to whoever the next tenant is. And to make matters worse, the cynical Thorn just expects her to sleep with him because he wants her to- and the girl just goes along with it. I guess what choice does she have? What do they do to furniture that disobeys? But it really complicates the issue of Thorn, who gradually becomes more likable as the movie progresses- until the part with Shirl.
Shirl, for her part, likes Thorn- or is it only that she senses his rough morality, that he'll protect her if he can? I mean, she has no idea what her new tenant will be like. So is it really consent when she sleeps with Thorn? He doesn't force her- it's just he assumes she'll go along. And even later when she asks him not to leave, and tells him she wants to go to another city with him, anywhere, where they can be together- how to know if that's what she really feels, or she's just desperate with no options? I would have liked to see the movie explore these topics a lot more.
Also, is there male furniture for the wealthy women?
Anyway, Thorn's smarter than he looks, because when he gets home he shows Sol all the stuff he stole- including two volumes of Soylent Oceanographic Survey Reports 2015-2019, which Simonson had at his place. Why was Simonson interested in plankton? Hmm. Also they have a nice meal, because Thorn brought home the beef after all. Later we meet Thorn's boss, the chief of detectives Hatcher, and Thorn tells him he thinks Simonson was assassinated. He suspects Tab the bodyguard, and after commiserating with the boss he goes to Tab's place. Tab's not home, which he knew because he watched him leave, but when Tab's "furniture" opens the door Thorn pretends to be surprised. Martha the furniture definitely has something to hide, from the way she's acting.
Sol meanwhile digs up that Simonson was on the board of directors for Soylent, and he used to be law partners with Santini, the current governor of New York. Also, Thorn has Sol taste a spoon he lifted from Tab's place, and Sol tells him it tastes like strawberries. Apparently strawberries are $150 a jar now. So Tab's got money! Also Thorn is being tailed, and when he calls the precinct to report in he uses a special police box on the street. Not a cell phone in sight!
The governor's office is leaning on Hatcher to close the investigation. Thorn goes to see Shirl to "ask more questions" i.e. sleep with her, and is surprised to see she has a bunch of the building's other furniture girls over to visit. The building manager shows up, pissed off that they're not working or something, and starts beating them up until Thorn tells him to get lost. Shirl tells Thorn that Simonson took her to a church a few times, and that he spoke with a priest for confession. Hmm, confessing what? Thorn really needs to get to work but Shirl asks him to stay, tempting him with a hot shower (apparently only the rich have hot water). "I'll rub you down afterwards," she tells him. That does the trick. And they have some love in the shower.
So Thorn goes to the church but the priest won't talk. Hatcher meanwhile is closing the case and wants Thorn to sign off, but Thorn refuses. Oh, and Thorn's on riot control duty now, too. That asshole Donovan shows up again, meeting with the governor, who tells him to "do what he has to do." Uh-huh. Tab then shows up at church and shoots the priest. There's a loose end tied up. I suppose Thorn is next?
Yup. They don't call it riot control for nothing, after all. It's Tuesday- Soylent Green day! But when there's not enough Green to go around the people predictably riot, and in the chaos Gilbert shows up with a gun and tries to kill Thorn. Except he misses and kills a woman next to Thorn instead. Oops. There's a fair amount of collateral damage in this movie. Meanwhile the scoops are here! The police use dump trucks to scoop the rioters up. Gilbert seems to hit everyone but Thorn, killing another bystander, until he gets squished by a scoop. Sayonara loser.
Thorn got wounded though and he's pissed. He goes to Tab's place and beats the crap out of him, telling him to back off from tailing him, and when Martha jumps in she gets smacked too. Thorn then goes to Shirl. Meanwhile Sol's been busy, he goes to The Exchange and he and the other analysts figure out that something's not right about Soylent Green. The evidence is overwhelming, the others tell him, and a shocked Sol decides he's had enough. Shaken, he goes to a euthanasia clinic to end things. There he selects the music he likes and whatnot for his final moments, and at the same time Thorn arrives home to find a note from Sol.
There's a haunting scene where Thorn is hobbling down a street, trying to get to the euthanasia clinic before Sol is gone, at night- the street is completely empty, except for garbage everywhere, and at the end of the street the clinic is the only building lit up. Subtle? Shirl meanwhile meets her new tenant, who wants to know if she's fun. Thorn gets to Sol in time to say goodbye, and is stunned when he sees images of the old earth, with oceans and rivers and wildlife. Apparently all of that is gone. The clinic plays these relaxing images along with the customer's choice of music to ease their passing. Oh, and Dick van Patten is one of the euthanasia techs!
Sol tells Thorn what he discovered, and that Thorn has to prove it. It's nicely done because Thorn is talking to Sol through an observation window, and the audio keeps going out, so Thorn puts on headphones- you can see Sol mouthing the words, but the audience doesn't actually hear what he tells Thorn yet. Thorn is shaken and sneaks into the clinic's disposal area, where he sees all the dead bodies being loaded into dump trucks. Thorn hitches a ride and when he gets to the waste disposal plant he sees bodies going in on a conveyor belt, eventually being dumped into a pool. After a little more searching he finds little green patties on a conveyor belt- that was quick! We are spared the details of how the bodies coming in are converted into little green patties, sadly.
Unfortunately Thorn is spotted and has to fight off a couple dudes to escape. One guy falls to his doom- I guess they can throw him on the conveyor belt. Thorn gets away but is being followed, and in desperation he calls Hatcher. The line is busy (!) so he calls Shirl, and when she tells him she met the new tenant he tells her to stay with him, and to live. Then Hatcher comes on and Shirl is disconnected- kind of a heartbreaking moment- and Thorn asks Hatcher to help him before he has to run again.
Tab happens to be one of the assassins after him, and he manages to shoot Thorn, who staggers into the church. Tab goes in after him and after shooting a woman who moves at the wrong time, he and Thorn fight. It doesn't look good but Thorn manages to stab Tab with a knife that just happens to be on the floor of a church. Well, that's sorted. Hatcher shows up and Thorn tells him, as he's being taken out, to go to The Exchange and tell them they're right. The oceans and plankton are dying, and Soylent Green is of course people. And we get that iconic scene.
So... does this movie actually suck? I would say no. It's a movie that I think benefits from the quiet way it's presented- this is not a flashy movie, and some might find it slow- but it has a lot going on. I watched with subtitles just so I wouldn't miss dialogue and that certainly enhanced the experience for me. I wanted to know what happens to Shirl! Does Hatcher do the right thing?
Like I said, this movie has some fascinating ideas and there's a lot to think about here. I would love it if they could have explored some of them a little more, but you know what? The purpose of science fiction is to make us think, and this movie certainly does that. Maybe that's enough.