Soylent Green (1973): Dystopia Now, and An Actor’s Final Bow
The year: 2022. The place: New York City. Population: 40 million. It is a world of overpopulation, pollution, and deprivation. Overcrowded conditions have wreaked chaos on the streets and people are--literally--feeding off of one another to survive. Pollution has expanded the greenhouse effect to a perilous degree, making it nearly impossible to grow food or sustain the raising of livestock. With real food in short supply, the only nutrition available to the populace is a synthetic product, purportedly made from ocean plankton, known as Soylent Green.
Detective Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) is assigned to the murder of William Simonson (Joseph Cotten), an executive of the Soylent Corporation. When his dogged pursuit of the facts begins to make certain people nervous, Thorn is removed from the case. He defies the injunction and with the help of his "Book", Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), Thorn uncovers the horrific truth behind Soylent Green.
Dystopia as commentary
Like most tales of global duress set in the future, whether dystopian or post-apocalyptic (or both; and that includes two other Charlton Heston vehicles: The Omega Man, 1971, and Planet of the Apes, 1968), Soylent Green is a commentary on the precarious present.
The filmmakers start within a set of parameters that we can readily recognize--too many people, not enough food or space, pollution, global warming, etc.--and extrapolate from those circumstances a conclusion that, when you think about it, might not seem so far-fetched. An obvious example: with much of today’s fast food already bordering on the synthetic, the film’s surprising conclusion could very well prove to be gruesomely prophetic.
Remembrance of things past
Sol Roth, with whom Thorn shares a tiny apartment, is also the detective's partner. He does the research while Thorn does the legwork. Always complaining, Sol is your typical movie curmudgeon, grumpy yet lovable. However, there is an added dimension to the disagreeable codger. Because he is much older than Thorn, he is also Thorn’s connection to the past, one of the dwindling few who actually remember the changing colors of the seasons, the succulent taste of real food, pleasures that Thorn will never get to experience. And when Sol dies, a way of life dies with him.
Having been a witness to the decay of civilization over the course of his lifetime, Sol is utterly disconsolate and overcome by helplessness. In one scene, Thorn brings home a few items he pilfered from the dead man's apartment--a bottle of scotch, some fresh produce, and a thick, juicy cut of beef; once everyday items that, in this inhospitable new world, are now out of the common man’s reach. Sol cannot believe his eyes. He looks as if he’s just spotted the gateway to Nirvana, and it’s portal is rapidly diminishing. He bursts into tears and cries, "How did we come to this?" He is the heart and soul, as well as the conscience, of the film.
An actor’s coda
Sol Roth was Robinson’s last role (he died before the film’s release), and as he has with nearly every part he’s played, he imbues his performance with nuance, humor, and genuine pathos.
Robinson burst onto the screen with an unforgettable performance in Little Caesar in 1931, during Hollywood’s Golden Age. And while the uninitiated may forever remember him as the ruthlessly ambitious, megalomaniacal mobster with the arrogant sneer, those who appreciate classic films will know that Edward G. Robinson has left a body of work that will surely stand the test of time (some of my non-gangster favorites: the dogged investigator in Double Indemnity, the lovestruck dupe in Scarlet Street, the cool-as-a-cucumber poker player in The Cincinnati Kid). By the way, as TCM’s star of the month, his films have been featured every Thursday night in May.
There is an analogy here that deserves mention: Just as the death of Sol Roth portends the end of one world, a world of beauty and an appreciation for the simple pleasures that make life worth living, the death of Edward G. Robinson reminded us we were also saying goodbye to another world--that of Old Hollywood: where a new form of entertainment, barely out of infancy, was still learning to walk; where craftsmen and craftswomen were still learning what could be accomplished with their new toys; and where, over the course of this madcap, audacious, unpredictable education, a handful of phenomenally talented individuals, like Edward G. Robinson, came together and managed to make art.