Thursday, September 15, 2022

Movie Review: SOYLENT GREEN (1973)

Once upon a time, there was a Charlton Heston film called Soylent Green, set in the far-off year of 2022 in which Earth has become massively overpopulated and...desperate measures...are required to keep everybody fed. Since we have finally reached that year and the human population has actually started to decline, the film podcast Myopia Movies is doing a very special episode on the film. Here is the podcast episode. And now for my review...

The Plot

New York City Police Department officer Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) and analyst Sal Roth (Edward G. Robinson) live in an NYC where there are 40 million people, at least half of whom are unemployed. Real food is rare and ludicrously expensive, with most people living on different varieties of "Soylent" made--supposedly--from processed vegetable matter.

When the wealthy William Simonson (Joseph Cotten) is murdered, Thorn investigates and soon finds himself unraveling a conspiracy with the help of Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), Simonson's former concubine (more on that later).

The Good

*The film touches on a lot of issues that are still timely. Although the movie is clearly a product of a time where overpopulation was the major ecological fear, the movie also mentions the greenhouse effect and other types of air, water, and soil pollution. Those are still problems, especially the former. It also touches on wealth inequality--New York City in 2022 has a population of 40M people, at least 20M of whom are unemployed. Thorn and Roth are police officers living in a tiny apartment with unreliable power, while most people live in even more wretched conditions. (I'm assuming) due to the massive unemployment and poverty, many women are willing to serve as concubines so degraded they're referred to as "furniture" and can serve particular individuals or whomever happens to be resident in a particular apartment. That's some Epstein-level stuff there. Homeless people literally fill the streets and fire exits. Food prices are rapidly skyrocketing--at one point Roth mentions $150 for a jar of strawberries, and the rarity of real beef reminds me of the early days of COVID when many meatpacking workers were sick.  Crime is so severe than the superintendents of ordinary apartment complexes carry assault rifles--although urban crime is nowhere near the levels of the late 1960s to early 1990s, it has been rising in recent years. Meanwhile, there is a ludicrously wealthy elite living in extreme luxury and fenced off from everybody else like something in Latin America or Africa.

(Someone on Twitter claimed dystopia is when privileged people are subject to the same horrors as the poor and marginalized--a lot of the stuff I've mentioned exists in real life, but for the most part not in the United States. Yet...the film mentions supply chain problems affecting day-to-day living in New York City, even for the wealthiest people, and even causing the decline of the book-publishing industry. Sound familiar?)

The film even touches on the alienation of people from each other...Simonson, who is wealthy enough to afford personal servants and even a concubine, has no next of kin to receive his death benefits. The "furniture" girls, exploited by their employers and on at least one occasion bullied by senior employees, seem to have only each other to rely on.

*Even though the film was made in 1973, there doesn't seem to be any overt racism. The (I assume) WASP Thorn banters with his black boss and Jewish roommate without any hint of snobbery or friction and he treats Martha (Paula Kelly), not only a black woman but the "furniture" of a suspected criminal, politely rather than lording it over her as a police officer and as a man. Although there are obviously still problems that need fixing, the negative of impact of discrimination has been in decline for some time.

*The acting is good. Heston is good as Thorn and Robinson is good as Roth, while Leonard Stone is appropriately reprehensible as the abusive butler Charlie. 

*Rather than a talkie-talk explanation of how just everything went bad, the dystopian aspects of the world are depicted initially by an opening-credit montage depicting population growth and pollution and then by details on-screen...heaps of homeless people, food lines, old people reminiscing about the days when the planet was more habitable, casual discussion of ludicrously-inflated food prices. No infodumping.

*The more you think about it, the more morally gray the situation becomes. Is the conspiracy investigated in the film the lesser evil, in order to reduce human pressure on the already collapsing environment?

*Finally, although this is pedantic, there's no TVTropes Bottomless Magazines here. In one fight sequence, the fact Thorn has to stop and reload his gun is important.

*When we see the cover's "riot control bulldozers" unleashed, the shots are so well-timed that they're actually a bit intimidating. It reminded me of the scene in The Wolfman where a man beats the wolfman to death with his silver-headed cane, but all the audience sees is the rising and fall of the cane over the fog.

The Bad

*The opening montage could have been tightened up a bit. The point could have been made a lot faster.

*The movie overall is rather slow-moving. There's a lot of "this is what dystopia looks like" where not a lot actually actually happens. Things do pick up later in the film though.

*Given the importance of the Catholic Church to the events in the film, there's a missed opportunity to depict the Catholic hierarchy conniving with the villains. Given how we see ordinary Catholic priests and nuns caring for the poor and providing spiritual solace, it wouldn't make the film anti-Catholic. All you'd really need to make the point is to depict a bishop or archbishop involved, which would make the ending more impactful and less vague.

The Verdict

Worth seeing once, but not the classic I expected. 8.0 out of 10.

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