Astor Theatre, Brock Peters, Charlton Heston, Classic movie, Dystopian future, Harry Harrison, Leigh Taylor-Young, Make room, Melbourne, Movie review, Rachel Carson, Richard Fleisher, Silent Spring, Soylent Green, Stanley Greenberg
It’s been a while since I did one of these, so I thought I’d give it another whirl. Today’s film is the 1973 classic ‘Soylent Green‘. I saw this last night at the beautiful Astor Theatre in St Kilda. The Astor is a fantastic venue for exploring old movies in the format they were designed for – on the big screen.
Going into ‘Soylent Green’ I knew the punch line; I suspect there wouldn’t be many people who don’t know it but I didn’t know the path of the narrative, having never read the book or read a synopsis. Based on the 1966 novel ‘Make Room! Make Room!‘ by Harry Harrison, the film follows Police Detective Frank Thorn as he investigates the death of a rich man in a dystopian future. Having destroyed the planet with pollution, overpopulation and global warming, humans fight for survival; unemployment is at 50%, food and water are rationed, almost everyone is desperate.
Depressingly, this future is now only eight years away*, and when I look at the issues this film explores I realise that we’ve been trying to get traction for the idea that we’re going to drive ourselves to extinction for a long time. This is probably one of the first man made dystopian future films made, paving the way for different versions as our scientific understanding changed; ‘Waterworld’, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, and to a lesser extent ‘Children of Men’. As the threat of mutually assured destruction and nuclear holocaust in the Cold War died down, the idea that humans would destroy themselves gradually became more attractive. One might speculate that at least one of Harrison, director Richard Fleisher, or screenwriter Stanley Greenberg, were inspired by Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring‘ (1962) in this formulation of the future.
But back to the film. I’m finding it difficult to work out how I feel about it. Given that it’s over forty years old, the stylistic approach is very different to what we expect now, specifically the pacing was much slower than a disaster film nowadays. That’s not to say that they didn’t build suspense well. Throughout the film, there was a very minimal musical score, and in the last sequences there was almost silence as the hero discovered the truth. This silence was unusual, unnerving and really creepy.
For my money, the best actor here was Edward Robinson, who played Sol. I couldn’t get behind Charlton Heston’s Thorn, but Sol really spoke to me – a nostalgic man, broken by the desperation around him. I think it was probably the weird romance that occurred between Thorn and Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young) that made it hard for me to get behind Thorn. It felt very unrealistic that she would just fall for a random stranger who burst into her life and stole her dead boss’s stuff. He also probably smelled terrible, every shot he was in he was sweating and he doesn’t have a shower because of water rationing. Yik!
The ending of the film also left me feeling dissatisfied. I wanted to know what was going to happen – without Soylent Green people would starve, but would they refuse to eat it when they knew what it was made from? How would the ingredients actually change the consumption, especially when people are starving. And how would Thorn survive given his injuries? Would he be able to get the message out anyway or would he be silenced? So many questions!
My overall feeling leaving the theatre was that of great unease. While relatively short, and relatively old, ‘Soylent Green pack a pretty big punch. It’s hard to rate it, but I’m going to give it 4 out of 5 stars. Certainly worth watching and definitely deserving of it’s cult/classic status.
*Although we have reached the seven billion global population that Harrison suggested.