This is the best movie I have watched so far in my blog project. There are films that have higher production values, and maybe a few greater performances, but this is exactly the movie that the makers set out to produce and film. This is a classic example of how a good Science Fiction Idea was caught and made into a good Science Fiction film, without having to reinvent the wheel. There are no dramatic visual effects, there is not an amazing display of technology, there is a simple idea executed well by people who knew what it was they wanted.
A great many clever SciFi movies came out of the seventies. Obviously Star Wars started off a big trend of visualizing the future and making it part of the story. Soylent Green is from the same mold as “A Boy and His Dog”, “The Omega Man”, “Damnation Alley” and a dozen more; movies whose ideas are the selling point of the story, not just the production design and special effects. Oh, and buy the way, here is the Greenhouse Effect used as a plot device, nearly forty years ago. This is before all the nonsense that the last 10 years are the hottest on record, or that the Himalayan glaciers will be gone in 20 years. In other words, this boy has been crying wolf for a long time. Chicken Little is going to need to show us that the sky is falling and not just ask us to trust him. Skipping past the dispute over whether this is a real concern, the film simply presents a vision of the world as if it is going to come out this way. I did not find it moralizing and pedantic like so many “message” pictures, I found the ideas intriguing and the sadness of the film very convincing. It does not point a finger at anyone and say, “it’s the oil companies fault” or “we need to stop the developers” or “the political system is against saving the planet”. The story just suggests that a Malthusian nightmare is upon us, without getting political.
Surrounding the plot are references to environments disaster, the usual Big Company conspiracies, technical breakdowns, blatant sexism, but at it’s heart are a couple of great ideas. That we don’t know what we have till it’s gone, and that people should matter. If that is political, then you might see this film in political terms. I thought it was a well made detective story with a fascinating setting, that makes the characters involved much fresher than they would otherwise be. The relationship between Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson is the love story in this movie. That Robinson’s character Sol, remembers what the world was like is the moral center of what takes place. And the journey, Heston makes to see the world in a more humanitarian way, both thru the environment and through people is the point of the story. Most people remember the final line of the movie and use it as a punch line. They say it out loud as if they are revealing the twist in a Twilight Zone episode or telling you that Darth Vader is…you know. What they are ignoring is the individualism that this movie is really about. We humans are something that should matter. We just saw the movies moral center turned into a product, anyone who ignores that doesn’t get the movie. Like the sucker punch at the end of “Planet of the Apes” this is a film that is about ideas not action.
I have loved Edgar G. Robinson as an actor, even before I knew who he was. The Bugs Bunny cartoons that used his likeness as a gangster, created the stereotypes that most of us have of mobsters in the 1920s and 30s. This is his final performance and he is as far from a tough guy as you can imagine. It is not hard to see him as the intellectual “Book” that assists the detective in investigating his case load. In essence what he is playing is the equivalent of an internet search engine without the technology. He has two great scenes in the movie, one where he shares a meal with Heston, featuring food that the detective will never have seen before, but that Sol can remember and pine over as the past that is lost. He knows what we have lost, and Heston doesn’t, until he shares, with Sol this decadent pleasure. It is Sol’s trip home however, that really shows to Thorn, what he is losing and what we have all lost. The trip home is the second great scene and it features the biggest art production of the movie, the L.A. Sports arena. That’s about as futuristic as anything gets; OK there is a brief image of a computer video game, that was probably dated two years after the movie came out. Like the rest of the film, the Sports Arena is just background for a story, it is not the feature that everyone should be focused on. As a result, the need for “futurism” stays unobtrusively in the background, while the ideas stand out.
Lots of good actors are in the movie, Joseph Cotton shows up for two scenes, Chuck Conners is one of the bad guys, Brock Peters is Heston’s boss. I recognized a lot of character actors in the movie that I have seen a million times over the years; Leonard Stone, Whit Bissel, and Paula Kelly are names most people won’t remember, but I have always tried to give credit to the no name, credit after the film performers.
This movie came out in 1973, if I saw it with anyone, it was with a my friend Mark Witt, who I have not seen or heard from since the summer of 1975. Mark was not a big movie fan, but he liked some science fiction stuff and I seem to remember that he and I went to the El Rey Theater on Main in Alhambra to see this. It is also possible that this is one of those movies I saw by myself. I am certain that I saw it more than once in a theater. I had no reservations about going to a movie alone, I guess I still don’t. Before I got hooked on Gene Hackman as an actor, Charleton Heston was probably my favorite. In the 1970’s I pretty much saw everything he was in. Soylent Green stands out as one of the best movies he made. It was not one of the classic epics that he was a part of, but it was one of the three really smart science fiction movies he made. If I can’t get the video to post, here is a link to the great title sequence.