I guess it’s something about the early 70s and The Omega Man. The Omega Man is the 1971 Charlton Heston version of everybody’s favorite Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend. Everybody except me. I didn’t particularly care for the novel, and I didn’t much like The Omega Man either. Somehow, I guess, that soured me on early 70s science fiction, so, for example, I never watched Silent Running (until recently) and Soylent Green (until yesterday). But I really liked Silent Running and Soylent Green is just terrific. What else have I missed?
I’m taking Wikipedia’s word for it that the film is “loosely” based on Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room! Make Room! I’ve never read it, and in fact I’d forgotten it was the basis for this movie until I saw it mentioned in the credits. So no comparisons for this one.
This is a dystopian story set in 2022 when the Earth is so overcrowded that dead bodies — even murder victims — are picked up by the Sanitation Department. Apartments are scarce, but apartment house stairwells overflow with sleeping men and women. Certain enterprising women find comfortable lodgings as “furniture” for wealthier men. And food, of course, is a major concern.
Solving the food problem is the Soylent Corporation, which produces wafers made from plankton. Even that, however, seems to be running low. Then a high-ranking member of the Soylent board is murdered and New York City Detective Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) is assigned the case. Scoping the crime scene for clues (and anything he can steal for his own use), Thorn is convinced that the victim, who put up no struggle, wasn’t so much murdered as assassinated, and that he both knew it was coming and accepted it. The question is why, when he had so much to live for: a beautiful daughter, a luxurious apartment, real produce and even beef.
The victim was a man who knew too much and couldn’t handle it. You probably already know his secret (as I did), but I won’t spoil it for those who don’t. Even though — and this is significant — knowing doesn’t spoil the experience at all.
Why? Because this film builds its world with great confidence; it doesn’t ask you to believe, it dares you not to. It doesn’t hide itself in darkness and it highlights the little things — like a hot shower or a good meal — that make a world believable. This extends even to the psychology of its characters. One scene has Thorn beating up a suspect who tells him he’s too smart to hit a cop. But when Thorn smacks his girlfriend, he changes his mind. Better still is a very poignant yet exciting scene set in an assisted suicide center, with gorgeous classical music from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Grieg playing on the soundtrack. It is, really, the signature scene of the film, for it shows us what has been lost to this future world while suggesting that it’s about to get a whole lot worse.
Edward G. Robinson, in his last film role, plays Sol Roth, Thorn’s “book.” He’s the educated research arm of the team (Thorn, of course, is the muscle), old enough to remember the days before strawberries cost $150 a jar. He’s very good, and the film scores again for making this team a real one. It’s not the usual good cop/crazy cop kind of thing; it’s legwork and knowledge, working together (rather like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, only with more action). Neither one alone could have solved the case.
A movie of surprising depth and swagger, Soylent Green is top-drawer, classic science fiction.