A nightmarish futuristic fantasy about the controlling power of big corporations and an innocent cop who stumbles on the truth.A nightmarish futuristic fantasy about the controlling power of big corporations and an innocent cop who stumbles on the truth.A nightmarish futuristic fantasy about the controlling power of big corporations and an innocent cop who stumbles on the truth.
The fast-paced montage of photographs leaps over one century in less than three minutes, where stills of crowded streets in the Big Apple and highway spiderwebs, make pictures of vast landscapes as obsolete as the Dodo. And in that whirlpool of suicide-inducing images, some ought to catch the attention of a 2020's audience. "Soylent Green" might not have the wizardry arthouse feel of Stanley Kubrick's "2001" but a certain pandemic increased its significance. In this 2022 New York basking under clouds of yellow suffocation, people wear masks, need permits to circulate, ration cards to eat and can consider themselves lucky if they don't sleep on stairs.
Even the least literate mind can feel the Orwellian vibes with corporations playing the Big Brother role, and we can forgive that 2022 looks oddly similar to the 70s and that digital technology didn't make much progress, but the merit of Richard Fleischer is not to aim too high so that the film can easily hit the target and makes its point, sparing us a lecture on Malthus theories about the regulations of population and the balance between demographics and food supplies. While the material calls for pessimism-driven analysis, the script written by Stanley Greenberg follows the usual patterns of detective stories with new layers revealed at the right time.
And so we have alpha male Detective Frank Thorn, played by Charlton Heston and his partner and roommate Sol, Edward G. Robinson in his final role. Sol is an old man who age-wise represents the 70s audiences or any viewer for that matter, one who can recall a time where food was real, where fruits existed, where the fauna and flora of the planet weren't annihilated. He keeps rambling about them to an oblivious Frank just as then-audiences in the 70s heard stories about the Great Depression. Heston plays his Frank in sheer detachment, which is the right approach as someone for which this is the only 'reality', the catch is that like the vast majority of people, he doesn't know the secret about that reality.
But whatever is to be discovered by Thorn is pending in the right order on the narrative's line, one we follow step by step. It starts when a big corporation executive named Samuelson (Joseph Cotton) is assassinated by a hitman and the murder is disguised as a botched burglary. The guilt-ridden victim knew his fate and didn't fight back. Frank is the one in charge and he handles the case rather cooly, thrilled by the opportunity to explore an upper apartment and bring back some trophies. He lets the bodyguard (Chuck Connors) file some red tape and then washes his head in the bathroom, takes a soap bar and admires the 'furniture' played by the beautiful Leigh Taylor-Young. The story warns us that in a time where necessity prevails, women's liberation would take many steps backwards.
Frank brings back some real food from the house and later comes one of the most memorable movie eating scenes. What we see is a young man realizing what food is and one reminiscing about how it was. Think about it, what was the last time you went to a pub? The last time you could walk and breath without a mask? In these Covid-eras, we learned to value things, but we know they'll be back some day. Robinson's performance is integral to the power of that scene, every gulp, every drop he swallows gives a poignant dimension. In fact all the Heston-Robinson scenes are heightened by the subtext of their beautiful friendship, like in "Double Indemnity", Robinson can handle a manly 'I love you' without being a sap.
Progressively, the film gets in the vicinity of these 70s paranoid conspiracy thrillers where a hunter becomes the hunted one. At that point of the review, there's no use to reveal the secret, let's just say that it became one of the most iconic quotes of American cinema and one that inspired a solution from Homer Simpson for overpopulation. The investigation in itself is rather formulaic and Fleischer doesn't have the right flair when it comes to handle action sequences, but the film is transcended by the Robinson's final scene, perhaps the most glorious swan song an actor ever had.
The sequence is a classic: Sol, tired of all this nonsensical world, decides to go "home", he pick his favorite music, his favorite color (another scene parodied in "The Simpsons") and enjoys for the last time the sight of nature the way it used to be (in that nightmarish future, at least they kept the footage). Sol's eyes are filled with tears and so are Frank's. Knowing that Edward G. Robinson was dying of cancer, you can see these were genuine tears from the two actors and friends. Heston crying because he's bidding farewell to his friend, Frank's crying because he sees his friend dying or that world that is dead already, there's a whirlpool of tears induced by sights and sounds from Beethoven's symphony, culminating with a last "I love you" right before Gynt's morning music and a sunset illuminates the screen.
That's a depiction of death that hasn't been equalled in any movie, as we see ourselves as part of the universe, embracing its eternal beauty before leaving. We'll get to that moment, but will that be as magnificent as Sol's departure? (perhaps the one moment of timelessness where "Soylent Green" came the closest to "2001").
- Apr 13, 2021