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Remember overpopulation? You know, back in the 70's when that idiot Paul Ehrlich was telling us to cut off aid to third world countries that didn't control their population growth or else we'd all starve? Man, what were we thinking? If only there was a movie that would allow us to recapture the mindset, as it were.
SOYLENT GREEN was directed by Richard Fliescher (20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, CONAN THE DESTROYER, AMITYVILLE 3-D) and written by Stanley R. Greenberg, based on the novel "Make Room! Make Room!" by Harry Harrison. The film begins with a montage of old photographs. We see the simple farming life of the late 1800's, then progress marches on and as America becomes more industrialized it becomes more crowded and more polluted. When it stops we are in New York City in the year 2022 (fifty years in the future from the film maker's point of view). The population of this huge city is 40,000,000 (as opposed to an actual population of just under 8,000,000 in 1970 and just over 8,000,000 today).
The New York we are shown is a dismal place, with crowds of unemployed poor everywhere. The only cars are either abandoned or used as homes by the multitudes. A smoky haze hangs over everything and many people wear surgical masks or bandanas over their mouths and noses to filter the air.
Detective Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston: TOUCH OF EVIL, PLANET OF THE APES, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, THE OMEGA MAN, THE AWAKENING) lives in a small rattrap of an apartment. He wakes up sweaty and stays that way through most of the movie, as does just about everyone else. On the TV is an interview with Governor Santini (Whit Bissel: SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, THE TIME MACHINE (1960), I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956), CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) and we are told the program is brought to us by high-energy vegetable concentrates Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow as well as the new Soylent Green, made from plankton.
The very old Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson: MACKENNA'S GOLD, DOUBLE INDEMNITY) is Thorn's roommate and police "book" - he looks up things and does research at an informal library called the Exchange. Sol is always complaining about how bad life is compared to what it was like when he was young but Thorn, who has never known anything else, dismisses Sol's stories. The two men exchange insults but it's good-natured. They're buddies.
In a better part of town a rich man named Simonson (Joseph Cotton: HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, BARON BLOOD) sends his bodyguard, Tab (Chuck Connors: WEREWOLF [TV], MANIAC KILLER, 99 AND 44/100% DEAD, THE MAD BOMBER, TOURIST TRAP), and his "furniture" (slang for "prostitute-that-comes-with-the-apartment"), Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young: JAGGED EDGE, LOOKER), out to buy groceries. The two spend hundreds of dollars on a few vegetables and some beef in a heavily guarded store and return to find Simonson dead.
Thorn investigates and doesn't believe this was a break-in gone bad, as it's meant to look. When he finds out that Simonson was on the board of the Soylent Corporation and business associate of Governor Santini he realizes his job is on the line and jobs are rare and precious in this Third World America.
Doing a good job doesn't stop Thorn from stealing everything he can from the rich man's apartment. There is a casual corruption that is simply accepted and this makes Thorn's character more believable as a man of this degenerate era. His theft leads to a bittersweet scene with Sol when Thorn shares the stolen food. The sight of actual beef brings Sol to tears at what life has become (this scene wasn't in the original script - it was improvised by Heston, Robinson and the director).
The ultimate author of the concepts being presented here is Thomas Malthus. Malthus wrote "An Essay on the Principle of Population" in 1798, which is remembered mostly for saying that overpopulation inevitably leads to famine and misery and massive die-offs and then the cycle is repeated (this is why any prediction of the future that includes famine and poverty is called "Malthusian"). The late 1960's and pretty much all of the 1970's were full of Malthusian predictions. Overpopulation was thought by many people to be the main thing that would doom us all.
Only it didn't. There are 2.5 billion more people on Earth now than there was when this movie was made and yet by almost any measure the standard of living of everyone - Third World included - is better now than it was then (for those who don't believe me, please read "The Progress Paradox" by Gregg Easterbrook). Food is cheaper and more plentiful than ever and the only reason famines occur is because of mismanagement of resources by corrupt, incompetent bureaucrats.
But enough philosophizing: let's get to the
The premise here is just plain wrong, but that doesn't stop it from being a great movie. The valiant struggle to do the right thing in a world where nobody cares is well portrayed and noble Plus, watch for a cameo by actress Celia Lovsky, who every true geek recognizes as "T'Pau" from the original Star Trek series. I give SOYLENT GREEN four shriek girls.
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