The year is 2022.
Smokestacks spew thick, dark fumes. Fires burn out of control. People wear masks to shield themselves from dangers in the air. Garbage overflows. Hunger and unemployment are rampant.
We understand all of that from the impressive two-minute opening montage for Soylent Green.
Though the film is best known for having one of the most memorable lines in movie history – which we won’t spoil here for those who don’t know it – Soylent Green is worth watching today to examine how close the 1973 film came to portraying our real world in 2022.
It’s chilling how many of the film’s predictions came true: Ecological disasters, dying oceanic ecosystems, overpopulation, the power of the 1 percent, euthanasia, misogyny and its version of plant-based “Impossible” food.
Watching director Richard Fleischer’s sci-fi film today, though, we realize Soylent Green is not really science-fiction anymore.
Based very loosely on “Make Room! Make Room!,” Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel that did not include that shocking secret that was created for the film, Soylent Green is a dour, dystopian movie set in a colorless world that is part police drama, part murder mystery and part ecological disaster film.
It is surprisingly violent and misogynist and not pleasant to watch. No one hesitates to hit women who live in a world where the best they can hope for is to become “furniture” – the term given to those who “come” with apartments for super-rich men.
People are literally treated like garbage. The dead are taken by sanitation crews to waste disposal plants without any ceremony or mourning time. If hungry crowds get unruly, the “scoops” – garbage dump trucks that scoop people from the street – are called in.
“Soulless” is the way actress Leigh Taylor-Young described the film while introducing it at the 2022 Turner Classic Movie Film Festival.
“You see characters trying to hold on to their humanity to dire results,” she said, adding the film is about what happens when “power and greed have overtaken the world.”
(Read more from Leigh Taylor-Young at the end of this story.)
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The film plot
In the year 2022, the world is suffering greatly from the greenhouse effect and overpopulation. (In New York City, the population is 40 million; compare that to the 8.4 million living there today.) Wildfires are raging. Oceans are dying, people are starving. Unemployment affects half the population causing most people to live in stairwells or on the streets; the fortunate get to share a tiny indoor living space.
NYPD Detective Frank Thorn (Charlton Heston) is lucky in that he shares what can barely be considered a room with his older friend Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson) who is a “police book” – a researcher/academic who helps Thorn with his investigations.
Only the wealthy live in apartments that look like exquisite penthouses but are built with high security features.
William R. Simonson (played by Joseph Cotten in a much too short appearance) is a kindly and wealthy gentleman who lives with a young woman named Shirl (Taylor-Young). We can sense their mutual affection and wonder if they are father and daughter. No. Shirl is the “furniture” that comes with the apartment, but she is treated well by Simonson.
When Simonson is brutally murdered very early in the film (that’s Stephen Young as the homeless activist/killer who pops up a few other times), the case is given to Thorn. His initial investigation in Simonson’s apartment is not what the viewer would expect. He becomes more interested in the trappings of the wealthy that we all take for granted today: air conditioning, running water in the bathroom, the smell of a bar of soap, a taste of bourbon that brings out the reaction of a kid who has never had a drink before. (Watch Thorn’s face when he learns there is hot water in the shower.)
Clearly not the most ethical guy around, Thorn stuffs a pillowcase with soap, pencils and papers for Sol, drink and food – two apples, a single stalk of limp celery and a piece of beef that brings Sol to tears. “How did we come to this?” Sol cries as he prepares a feast out of the meager offerings.
They each savor a leaf of lettuce and an apple. Sol introduces Thorn to beef stew. The joyful look on their faces speaks volumes.
“I haven’t eaten like this in years,” Sol says.
“I’ve never eaten like this,” Thorn says.
There is a lovely tenderness between the two men, who are more like father and son than friends or co-workers.
The scene helps underscore the food problem that causes people to wait in the equivalent of a bread line for cracker-like pieces of Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow – “high-energy vegetable concentrate.” The new hope to combat world hunger is Soylent Green, a “miracle food of high-energy plankton … gathered from the oceans of the world.” It’s so popular and in such short supply that you can only get it on Tuesdays – Soylent Green Day.
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Discovering the truth
Though it looks like Simonson was killed in a burglary gone wrong, Thorn doesn’t buy it. He thinks it was an assassination, perhaps with the help of Simonson’s bodyguard Fielding (Chuck Connors) who conveniently got Shirl out of the apartment. Thorn’s suspicions are raised at Fielding’s apartment, where he sees that he “seems to do pretty well for himself,” especially after noticing a spoon with $150-a-jar strawberry jelly on it. (The man notices the details.)
In a biographical survey, Sol learns that Simonson had connections to Soylent – he became a board member after Soylent bought out his company – and to shifty Governor Santini (played by Whit Bissell).
“Your dead one was a very important man,” Sol tells Thorn. “Soylent controls the food supply for half the world.”
As they put the pieces together, powerful people – including the governor – get nervous. Thorn is taken off the case and sent in as one of the riot police (check out their silly silver football helmets). Unfortunately, it’s the same day they run out of Soylent Green and hungry people – dressed in drab, colorless clothing that makes them look like they are in a war camp – lose it. The riot police deal with them by heartlessly calling for the “scoops.”
Meanwhile, Sol has read the books Thorn took from Simonson’s apartment, “Soylent Oceanographic Survey Report, 2015-2019.” He Consults with other “Books” at “The Supreme Exchange” where he confirms a secret so horrible that it is only whispered. The Exchange asks him to find proof of this grotesque news so they can help put an end to it.
But what Sol has learned is so unimaginable that he leaves Thorn a note after deciding it’s time to “go home,” a euphemism for ending his life at a government-assisted suicide clinic. There, Sol’s life will end in a peaceful room with his favorite colors and music as he watches serene images of nature, animals and oceans. Thorn arrives just in time to say goodbye and is drawn to tears witnessing the images of the colorful, beautiful world that once was Earth.
With his last words, Sol whispers the terrible secret to Thorn who races off to expose the truth leading to the climax at the Soylent plant. There, Thorn sees the truth for himself and screams out the hideous secret that became a famous phrase now emblazoned on T-shirts, posters and internet memes as part of the film’s legacy.
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The real Soylent
Yes, there is a real Soylent plant-based food product that you can get online and at such large retailers as Walmart and Target.
It was created by four software engineers working in Silicon Valley around 2013 who were living off frozen meals and ramen noodles at the time.
They decided that they wanted to engineer better food for themselves. “Food can be simplified for the better,” the soylent.com website states.
The name did come from the original novel and the website has a funny video that’s an homage to the movie’s final scene as an animated plant gives an alternate definition to Soylent as it is in the movie.
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More from Leigh Taylor-Young
Before the screening of Soylent Green at the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival in April 2022, actress Leigh Taylor-Young spoke to fans about making the movie along with filmmaker and illustrator William Joyce.
“It’s incredible to represent the film today,” said Taylor-Young, an environmentalist, who once served as special advisor in Arts & Media for the United Nations Environment Programme which is tasked with coordinating responses to environmental issues within the United Nations system.
She was hesitant about making the film, she said, but is “very, very glad I made it primarily for the people I met. … Sometimes for me, the human experience has far surpassed what I’m doing as an actor.”
That would include working on Soylent Green with actors Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson.
Heston was a serious person, she said, but also “lovely and very respectful” especially during their more intimate scenes. The palpable tenderness between the two characters comes from what they have each gone through, she added.
“What he’s up against, he doesn’t have (tenderness); he’s got to survive and she is surviving as well,” Taylor-Young said.
Soylent Green was the 101st film for Edward G. Robinson and it was also his last. Unknown to the cast and crew, Robinson was dying of cancer. That’s especially poignant considering Robinson so beautifully plays his final scene where his character, Sol, ends his life in a government euthanasia facility.
She spoke of that scene and her instant connection with the actor. “He was a beautiful being,” she said. His scene where he goes to a dying center is “one of the most amazing scenes of living and dying that anyone has ever shown. It is beautiful.”
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.