Monday, August 25, 2014

Soylent Green (1973)

Director: Richard Fleischer                             Writer: Stanley R. Greenberg
Film Score: Fred Myrow                                 Cinematography: Richard H. Kline
Starring: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Chuck Connors and Whit Bissell

This classic science-fiction film was Edward G. Robinson’s one hundred and first film and he died of cancer just days after principal photography was completed. Even if the film had been unsuccessful it would be remembered today for Robinson’s powerfully subtle performance. Robinson had worked with Charlton Heston previously on Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments in 1956, but less well known is that he was originally cast as Dr. Zaius in another science-fiction classic, Planet of the Apes, but after test footage was done for the studio he declined due to the strain of working under the heavy makeup required for the role. His work in this film, however, was one of the reasons it remains so popular, and today the name Soylent Green has become synonymous with the gruesome dystopian needs of a desperate future. The story is based on the sci-fi novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison which dealt with the consequences of global warming, including overpopulation, pollution, and climate change that results in the destruction of food producing plants. The author was not pleased with the production, however, as he felt the needs of audience in the form of the detective story and the furniture girls were a distraction from the main point of the story.

The film begins in 2022 with an overcrowded world. New York City alone has over forty million people living in cars and in the hallways of buildings. Along with the overcrowding has come the destruction of the food supply. Now people are dependent on science to create synthetic food out of plant proteins and plankton, and the Soylent Corporation is the maker of different food products distinguished by their color, red, yellow and green. Common supplies like soap and paper and pencils, as well as the books that Robinson craves, are non-existent, and of course actual food is worth hundreds of dollars. Charlton Heston is a homicide detective and Edward G. Robinson is his roommate and investigator and they only get paid when they solve a case. The latest one comes when a man hires a homeless young man to kill Joseph Cotton by breaking into his gated apartment building and beating him to death. Before he kills him, he delivers a message from whoever ordered him murdered. After a couple of days, however, Heston’s lieutenant, Brock Peters, is ordered to close the investigation by the office of governor Whit Bissell. Robinson discovers that Cotton was once a business partner of Bissell’s on the board of the Soylent Corporation. Something Cotton knew, he wanted to expose, and Bissell can’t allow that to happen. But Heston refuses to quit the investigation for fear of losing his job.

What is interesting about the construction of the film is that Charlton Heston is less of a star than he is the central character around which the story revolves. He does a fine job of playing Charlton Heston, similar to the character he would play in most of his films. The real star of the piece, even though he’s in a supporting role, is Edward G. Robinson. He is the one who ultimately makes the discovery that is the climax of the film. And his decision to end his life by going “Home,” a euthanasia center for the elderly and disabled, is especially poignant considering he knew his life was nearing its end. It’s a masterful scene and one befitting such a tremendous actor in his final performance. As for the story itself, it’s not particularly gripping. The emphasis is really on the dramatic change in life for the citizens of the country and how the people are dealing with it rather than the mysterious reason for Joseph Cotton’s death. Director Richard Fleischer, son of cartoonist Max Fleischer, was a good choice for the project as he had directed several science-fiction films previously, including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954 and Fantastic Voyage in 1966. The supporting cast has a lot of big names, but most with very small roles, though it is always nice to see sci-fi / horror veteran Whit Bissell. While Soylent Green has never been a critical success, it remains a fan favorite and a classic of the genre.

No comments:

Post a Comment