Richard Fleisher’s 1973 dystopian film Soylent Green is not for the faint of heart. Especially now, when the entire world has been in the midst of a war against COVID-19 and we now reminisce about a time when we could go to a restaurant and not have to worry about wearing face masks and social distancing. Fleisher, whose previous works include The Vikings and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, recreates a dystopian society in the future where the world population has sky rocketed and cities are overcrowded. There are so many people living in New York City that the stair wells in apartment buildings are layered with humans trying to sleep. In addition to overpopulation, the planet is running out of food to feed the people. Meat, alcohol, and even jam are rare delicacies. Most of the people can’t afford such luxuries, so they exist on ocean plankton produced by a company called Soylent Green.
The main character of the movie is Detective Frank Thorn (Charlton Heston), who is investigating the murder of a Mr. Simonson, who was a board member of Soylent Green. Despite the fact that he’s warned to stop pursuing the case and almost fatally shot by Simonson’s assassin, Thorn refuses to give up uncovering the truth.
Thorn’s roommate and friend, Sol (Edward G. Robinson) is older and remembers a time when the world wasn’t quite as ravaged. When Thorn returns home one night with oceanographic records, Sol realizes that the sea hasn’t had any plankton in many years. This means, the plankton is coming from a different food source. While Sol doesn’t have the proof to support his suspicions, he is so dismayed by the state of the world that he decides to visit the ferryman and peacefully end his life.
Thorn is too late to stop Sol. He sees his friend laying in bed watching a montage that showed the world how it used to be when food was plentiful and the planet was thriving. Just before he dies, Sol tells Thorn that he must get the evidence to prove that the actual source for Soylent Green is humans. Sadly, this scene was Edward G. Robinson’s final acting moment. No one else knew at the time that he was terminally ill with bladder cancer. Robinson died only several days after completing the film. He was a wonderful character actor.
Another aspect of this film that is disturbing is the treatment of women. Expensive apartments come equipped with a beautiful female companion, known as furniture. Thorn develops affection for Mr. Simonson’s “furniture”, a beautiful woman named Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young). While the fact that these women are mistreated is not lost on Thorn, he sees that they sadly still have it easier than the rest of the people who are fighting just for a small bag of lime green colored wafers.
Soylent Green received mixed reviews when it hit theaters. The strength of this film is the premise, but it still wouldn’t have the same effect now as it did when it was first released. In the early 1970’s, society was just starting to discuss and examine climate change and overpopulation, so the plot of the movie would have seemed more novel back then. We’re less than two years away from the time period of when this story takes place. Watching it today is obviously going to be a much different experience. However, where audiences could most relate to this film is the yearning for a time when life was simpler and easier. Soylent Green is a disturbing reminder that we should never take anything for granted because life always brings unexpected changes.