Look at its images of a rioting populace fighting against heavily armed authorities, and tell me you can’t see the same on the nightly news. And that’s without touching upon the elephant in the room: its theme of dwindling resources in an exploding population. That’s no longer the stuff we have to stop worrying about once our eyes leave the screen. Poor women, too — they’re reduced to literal furniture.
But Richard Fleischer’s 1973 film — something of a minor classic — is no preachy drama. It’s an enjoyable tale of a less-than-fantastic future with a classic detective-story twist. Heston drives that plot as Thorn (certainly that name was no accident), who puts his nose where it doesn’t belong while investigating the murder of an exec at the Soylent corporation, which manufactures the only “food” by which the general society can come.
What’s the big deal with that? Well, like the Colonel’s secret blend of 11 herbs and spices, or Dr Pepper’s hush-hush recipe involving 23 flavors, Soylent Green’s composition is a closely guarded mystery — so covert that people who learn the truth end up dead.
Chances are, even if you’ve never seen the movie, you know its twist, because it packed quite the pop-culture punch, becoming a punch line with no setup. Having the surprise spoiled has lessened the power of the film — and, I’d argue, its rep — as the decades have passed, but “Soylent Green” remains a worthy watch, if heavily dated. It might be better remembered had it ended on a ball-kicker of a bleak ending on the level of the forever-iconic “Apes,” instead of with the up-tempo classical track that bursts over fields of flowers.
The film looks a little murky even on Blu-ray, but in better shape than the pair of vintage promo pieces whipped up by the studio, with just a tad of overlap between them. One places “Soylent Green” in the pantheon of landmark sci-fi before it, from “Forbidden Planet” to “2001.” The other shows a handkerchiefed Heston introducing co-star Edward G. Robinson to celebrate this being his 101th film (although it really wasn’t). The former gangster-picture actor accepts the accolades (and cake!) while smoking. Um, he died not long after. Bummer. —Rod Lott