The history of science fiction film is littered with landmark works that, sometimes rather profoundly, just don’t stand the test of time. Soylent Green (1973) is a case in point, one of those crusty relics I feel compelled as an SF professional to know about, even though it’s well past its sell-by date. Outwardly attempting to have its heart in the right place, Soylent Green also has its heart in a very wrong place, making its cautionary message — which isn’t especially eloquent anyway — even more difficult to hear.
The year is 2022 (!), and overpopulation has led to food and water shortages, massive urban overcrowding, pollution, and ecological collapse. The mystery begins when the rich and powerful Simonson (Joseph Cotten) is killed in his posh, high-rise apartment. A sketchy police detective, Thorn (the ever-snarling Charlton Heston), catches the case, and in between opportunistically looting the crime scene of precious luxury items, he quickly discerns that Simonson’s death looks fishy: a premeditated murder staged to look like a break-in gone wrong. With the aid of his elderly researcher friend Sol (Edward G. Robinson), Thorn pursues the case despite the protestations of his superiors, only to uncover a shocking conspiracy about his dying world.
Soylent Green hinges on a twist so well known that it’s liable to “spoil” any mystery the film may still hold for modern viewers. I knew it going in, which forced me to focus strictly on the surface techniques and details. And frankly it’s a grungy, ugly film, perhaps appropriately so given the dire world it’s depicting. The outdoor scenes are shot through grimy filters to suggest smog pall, and the sets and streets are jam-packed with mobs of sweaty, filthy people. The riot cops wear football helmets and rely on bulldozers for crowd control. It’s a grim scene, man. But the dystopian trappings are only semi-effective, lacking depth, and even if it were more richly imagined, it would probably be difficult to appreciate behind Heston’s entitled, repulsive heroism and the potent sexism and misogyny that permeates the film. The only significant female characters, played by Leigh Taylor-Young and Paula Kelly, are escorts known colloquially as “furniture,” and the gender politics of the world-building are like a conservative Republican bastardization of the sexual revolution. The virulent sexism is even uglier than the filmmaking, and it’s deeply baked into Thorn’s personality. By the time his investigation has finished, the revelation that shatters of his worldview – theoretically the film’s dark punctuation mark – feels like deserved punishment.