Warner Bros. // 1973 // 97 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // April 21st, 2011
What is the secret of Soylent Green?
Dystopia comes to the Big Apple -- again -- and, as is always the case with dystopia, it ain't pretty.
It's 2022, and New York City is an overcrowded disaster area, with a population of 40 million. People starve and sleep on the streets; a greenish fog -- a consequence of "progress" and the greenhouse effect -- pollutes the air. There is no middle class, only the very rich and the very poor. Wealthy men live in lavish apartments, and the rent includes beautiful, young women as part of the "furniture."
Since natural resources are fast being depleted, the food supply consists mainly of products from the Soylent Company, which provides half the world's food. The most nutritious Soylent product is Soylent Green (as opposed to the lower-quality Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow), which is made of plankton.
Police Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston, True Lies) is called to investigate the murder of the wealthy William Simonson (Joseph Cotten, Citizen Kane), a high-ranking member of the Soylent company. Immediately, Thorn realizes that this is not the "robbery gone bad" others have portrayed it to be. He believes Simonson was assassinated -- but why?
The most logical suspect would be Simonson's bodyguard, Fielding (Chuck Connors, Tourist Trap). Bodyguards, like police officers, don't live the high life like men of Simonson's wealth, but Fielding has a fairly swanky apartment, lots of exotic food -- including strawberries, a wildly expensive delicacy -- and a beautiful piece of "furniture" (Paula Kelly, Trouble Man).
Although his boss tells him to back off the investigation, Thorn continues to dig. What he uncovers is a secret horrifying beyond his wildest nightmare.
Soylent Green might be the best-remembered of the '70s "social message" sci-fi films, a group that included Logan's Run, Rollerball, and Silent Running. These films were less concerned with things like alien attacks and more focused on "relevant" issues like the environment, the population explosion, and corporate greed. Soylent Green has endured as a cult favorite for a number of reasons: its intriguing story, its iconic leading man, and perhaps most import, its punchline. I knew what the "mystery" of Soylent Green was long before I'd ever seen the film, since "secret" -- famously revealed by Heston's character in the closing moments -- has passed into pop culture consciousness. Since it's so well known -- it's really the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the title -- I was surprised to discover that it was supposed to constitute a shock ending.
Even knowing the secret of Soylent Green going into it doesn't dilute the film's impact. This is a solid, classy little film that offers many rewards beyond its late-game "gotcha."
Charlton Heston was the very definition of a leading man, a serious, dynamic actor who often took roles in less-than prestigious films, and whose presence often elevated them. He was almost 50 when he made Soylent Green and was already transitioning from Hollywood blockbusters to smaller films, including science fiction classics like Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man, westerns like excellent Will Penny, a few little-seen forays into Shakespeare, and the occasional TV movie and disaster film.
Heston brings his considerable star quality to the part of Thorn and turns in a memorable performance. He's the Hero with a capital "H," though he's not above a little corrupt behavior, happily looting the rich man's house of food, soap, and other luxuries. This leads to one of the film's best scenes, in which Thorn and his sidekick, Sol Roth (the indispensable Edward G. Robinson) share a meal of fresh vegetables and beef -- things Thorn has never eaten, but the much-older Sol remembers all too well.
Soylent Green was Robinson's 101st and final film, and he offers a deeply felt, moving performance as a man who's become a relic, is deeply unhappy with the way the world has turned and believes it's becoming time for him to "go home." He and Heston have a wonderful, natural rapport, and their scenes together are standouts. In the commentary, Director Richard Fleischer (Mandingo) talks about how ill Robinson was during the production -- he died not long after the film was completed -- and that he was almost completely deaf, so that he learned his scenes well enough that he could respond to dialogue and cues he was unable to hear. Also turning in good work is Leigh Taylor-Young (Can't Stop the Music) as a particularly fetching piece of "furniture" with whom Thorn takes up.
Fleischer's vision of New York in what is now the not-too-distant future is dank, dingy, and congested. While the "modern" stuff is clearly a 1970s idea of things to come -- a "futuristic" video game is just a few steps down from Space Invaders, and Cotten's "posh" apartment looks like it was decorated as part of a Bravo reality show -- the low-rent stuff looks great (check out the tin ceiling in Heston's apartment). Fleischer combines elements of sci-fi, murder mystery, romance (between man and "furniture"), noir, and environmental warning in a fast-moving, Saturday matinee-ish package that even today still packs a punch. Soylent Green is a fun film on a lot of levels and has earned its place as a minor classic.
This Blu-ray from Warner Bros. is the third incarnation of Soylent Green on DVD.
On Blu-ray, Soylent Green doesn't look Soylent Great, but it's an improvement over the 2003 Special Edition DVD. Detail is solid, contrast is good, and there's a reasonable amount of depth to the image. Audio is a clean DTS-HD Mono track that gets the job done, though I don't know that the film -- which isn't exactly a sonic feast -- would have benefited much from a massive upgrade.
The supplements are all ports from the earlier release: an interesting commentary track with Fleischer and Taylor-Young, a trailer, and a pair of vintage featurettes, one an EPK-style short and another featuring an on-set celebration for Robinson.
Soylent Green is such a part of our cultural lexicon that Warner really should have put more into the disc. The transfer is reasonable and better than the older ones, but the film really deserves better than just some ported supplements. Some new material -- maybe a commentary by a contemporary filmmaker or critic and an updated featurette or two -- would have made this a must own. As it is, this Blu-ray is recommended for fans who don't own the previous releases; otherwise, better image notwithstanding, I can't say that it warrants replacing the earlier Special Edition.
The film's not guilty; Warner Bros., on the other hand, gets a bench lecture for negligence.
Review content copyright © 2011 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (German)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Rated PG