Despite the fact that its too-famous last line spoils the story's main surprise, Soylent Green is still a powerful film. Its reputation and production values may lead you to believe that it is yet another bad sci-fi movie from the 1970's. Don't be fooled.
Charlton Heston, an actor who has had better last movie lines than any other star we can think of, plays Detective Thorn. Thorn is one of the few "good" New York cops in the famine-ravaged year of 2022. At this point in the future, overpopulation is problem number one, so much so that Thorn has to climb over a carpet of sleeping bodies every time he takes the stairs outside his apartment. To feed the sprawling masses, new types of food have been introduced by the Soylent corporation, which distinguishes between the various soy and plankton products by color. Soylents red and yellow have been joined by a new flavor, soylent green, which is "made from the finest undersea growth."
Thorn, a homicide detective, is called upon to investigate the death of William Simonson (Joseph Cotten), one of the highest members of the Soylent corporation. Although it initially looks like the work of a burglar who broke into Simonson's apartment, Thorn uncovers facts that reveal Simonson's death to have been an assassination. Thorn is occasionally assisted in his investigation by Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), a young woman who lives in the apartment as "furniture" for its tenant. Shirl's presence is not the only indication that Simonson was a rich man: the apartment has hot running water, plenty of real food, and books made from real paper. Thorn is a good cop, but he's not above "liberating" as many of these amenities as he can during the course of the investigation -- including Shirl.
Insert your own Ally McBeal joke here.
Thorn takes all the evidence he can find back to his "book," a sort of live-in researcher for detectives, named Sol. Sol (Edward G. Robinson in his final role) remembers the world before the famine struck. "When I was a kid, you could buy meat anywhere!" he says. Thorn, who has no such memories, humors him and brings him what small luxuries he can in exchange for Sol's services. Sol is our link to this sordid future; he is as horrified as we are at the state of the world. He is also as disbelieving and frustrated as we might be with those who accept the state of things in this bleak horror-show of a life.
Sol: How did we come to this?
Thorn: Come on -- we're doing fine.
Sol: We're doing lousy!
Soylent Green is one of those terrific films in which one relatively clueless but decent person becomes embroiled in a plot much larger than he is. Ill-equipped to deal with such a conspiracy, Thorn must survive on instinct and guts in best film-noir fashion. It's the kind of story that makes tv shows like The X-Files so popular, and it's the kind of tough-guy individualist role that Heston plays so well.
Heston gets his revenge for Eight Is Enough
four years in advance.
By the end of the movie, it's hard not to look around at your surroundings and think, "Hey, I've got it pretty good." It's a film that's tough to watch, but that makes the few tender moments more powerful. Seeing Sol and Thorn share a meal of real food has a certain poignancy when you realize how rare such commonplace pleasures have become in this twisted future. Even more touching is the scene in which Sol finally decides to opt out of this haggard life in one of the most horrifying death scenes ever.
Soylent Green walks a fine line between melodramatic Seventies science fiction and a thoughtful examination of problems that began to surface in a decade of oil shortages, endangered species, and Sha Na Na. Despite some hokey character acting and a vision of the future that hasn't aged well (will rich people really be playing Asteroids in black and white twenty years from now?), Soylent Green is a sci-fi movie into which you can really sink your teeth -- metaphorically speaking, of course.
As Thorn says halfway through the film, she's a nice piece of furniture. Taylor-Young is quite the accomplished actress, although her career has had certain peaks and valleys. She was even in the hideous Can't Stop The Music. Go back!
You've got to admit, it's pretty horrifying to be led to one's doom by Dick Van Patten. Go back!
If you've already seen Soylent Green or you already know the last line of the film, click here or keep scrolling down. Otherwise, we recommend you return to the review and then watch the film.
Of course, Soylent Green is really people. So why'd they lie about it being made of kelp? 'Cause all their attemps to market Soylent Green didn't work. Here are some of the slogans they tried: