It's New York about thirty years from now, crowded beyond belief, polluted, filled with garbage, uncomfortably hot all year round, and all commodities scarce except for the tasteless crackers called Soylent -- just like the rest of the world.
Charlton Heston is a New York City cop cooped up with his crotchety friend and researcher (his "book", because books are scarce), Edward G. Robinson. An extremely wealthy businessman, Joseph Cotten, is beaten to death in his luxury apartment and Heston is assigned to the case. He makes his way on foot to Cotten's apartment, stepping over the bodies, living and dead, that are piled on the streets and stairways.
Well -- this is some apartment! Heston walks in and gazes stupefied at the tchotchkas and the furniture. The "furniture" includes the succulent Leigh Taylor-Young. No wonder he gawks. She comes with the apartment, if the resident wants her to, because living space is almost impossible to find.
Heston, whom we are used to seeing as an upright man of principle, strides casually around the scene of the crime, chatting with Taylor-Young before he beds her down. Does he steal anything from the well-stocked apartment? "Everything I could lay my hands on." There's some wilted lettuce, a half-turgid stalk of celery, and two apples. There's even a cut of beef. Heston takes it all home to Robinson, who is old enough to remember what this stuff is, and Robinson makes a bit of stew out of it and helps drain the confiscated bottle of bourbon. Heston takes an indifferent munch out of the lettuce but Robinson has tears in his eyes and he savors the feast.
The trail gets a little twisted. Cotten turns out to have been on the board of Soylent AND a relative of the mayor. People begin to tail Heston and take pot shots at him. His boss, Brock Peters, tells him to lay off the case, as all cops' bosses do. In other words, something is rotten in the state of New York besides the garbage. Actually, there may be no more state of New York. The city of New York now adjoins the city of Philadelphia. (Good-bye, New Jersey.) Looking northward, the boundary may abut the city of Boston, perhaps somewhere around East Windsor, Connecticut.
Heston persists in following the few clues that show up, not so much out of morality but because he doesn't want to lose his job. But Robinson discovers the secret behind Soylent first. It depletes whatever resources Robinson had left and he decides to have an institution send him on his eternal journey.
In a poignant scene, Robinson is wheeled into a room of his favorite color, given a painless poison, and is free to watch movies of an earth with natural features that are pristine and beautiful and majestic -- all the things we are recklessly discarding as we carry on with our daily lives now -- and Robinson is treated to a melange of light classics that include romantic snatches of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, Tchaikovsky, and Grieg. Heston bursts in and is more astonished by the IMAX images of deer, snow-veined Alps, apple blossoms, and rolling ocean than he was at the slab of meat. Meat, Heston recognized for what it was. But he's never seen anything like the film he -- and Robinson in his last moments -- witness. Heston is unable to even speak.
Anyway, he follows Robinson's body out of the Extinction Room or whatever it is, and he too discovers the secret behind the mystery of Soylent, which by now every viewer has also figured out. The film doesn't end on a particularly hopeful note.
How well does the movie do at predicting what the world will look like in fifty years? Well, yes and no. It makes the usual assumption that the future will have what we have now, only there will be more of it and it will be bigger. (The futuristic movies of the 1930s had propeller-driven airplanes in every garage.) The quantum leaps that introduce revolutionary social and technological change are usually missed. (The jet airplane did more than make cross-country movement faster; it vulgarized travel, homogenized the world, and eliminated the exotic.) The movie (and presumably the original story) also got the chief assumption behind population growth wrong. Right now, there are more than 6 billion people in the world. This number will more than double by 2050, along with all the problems that accompany it -- pollution, urban sprawl, scarce commodities, and the rest of it. But the streets will never be filled with piles of supernumeraries. Population irruptions such as we're undergoing now, have been studied in numerous animal populations. Thomas Malthus, E. O. Wilson, E. T. Hall, and Paul Ehrlich have written about what happens, and so have I, if I can put myself in this exalted company. What happens is that the population "crashes" from stress-related diseases or opportunistic infections before the hand-to-mouth phase is reached. Ulcers, heart failure, and AIDS are examples. Wars too, if you can think of them as a stress-related disease. To paraphrase Malthus, if we don't stop it, Nature will.
Don't get me started on cannibalism either. Anthropologists don't only ask "why"; they also ask "why not"? Do I have a few more lines left? If I get too close to the limit, somebody flap a napkin at me. This may sound queer, but it may be Charlton Heston's best performance, including his efforts at Shakespeare. He's not a very expressive actor but his insouciance as he wanders through the dead Cotten's apartment, opening drawers, leaving nonchalant insults in his wake, openly stuffing a pillow case with every valuable in sight (except Leigh Taylor-Young, who is too big), is marvelous. He's played "masterful" many times before, but never with such irony.
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