Soylent Green Review
Soylent Green is something to treasure. It's a film made over thirty years ago that still hasn't lost its power of the years; a fact made more remarkable by the fact that this is a sci-fi movie that concerns itself with the universally popular, and difficult to do well, theme of the 'end of civilisation as we know it'.
Civilisation here is under threat from the twin evils of overpopulation and pollution. More mundane than, say nuclear war or zombies, but rather more realistic, Soylent Green's strength is that the breakdown of society is not dealt with directly, but rather exists as the backdrop to the main story. This gives the whole apocalyptic theme a rather subtle feel, and it's all the more effective for it.
The main plot element is that of a simple murder investigation that turns into something rather more complicated. It has elements of film noir, the dogged detective and the femme fatale, and this is nicely played with. Thorn, played with charm and charisma, by Charlton Heston, is classic noir material. He's no hero, has a record of failure with the department and isn't above stealing luxuries from the dead man's apartment. His Femme Fatale, Shirl played by Leigh Taylor-Young, exists as an item of furniture, a female that comes with each apartment, subservience to the male dominant society works well as a polar opposite to the usual, more powerful, female often present in noir. And, of course, this whole issue of females as 'furniture' is a powerful metaphor for feminist concerns.
Of course, Thorn uncovers a web of conspiracy and evil the further he gets into the case and as is usual, his boss is corrupt and tries to close the case. No surprises, but it's use here, in what is on the surface a sci-fi film, is very effective and it gives the more outlandish elements of the plot a solid grounding in film realism and ensures the secret at the heart of the film is all the more shocking once it becomes clear.
Fleischer's direction is also very effective. The 2.40/1 ratio is used extremely well, Fleischer chooses to use the wide scope to emphasise the claustrophobia and this is not an easy trick to pull off. Characters are rarely shot from a distance, and when they are, it's always to highlight the desolation of the city that crumbles around them. It's also rare for a character to be shot in close-up, and Fleischer ensures that the characters are almost never in frame alone, as it were, and there is always some form of architecture or obstacle for them to negotiate, such as climbing over mounds of the homeless. It's very subtle, and its use builds as the film progresses culminating in a frantic chase through the twisted gantry of a waste disposal plant. Fleischer is using the architecture of the film as a metaphor for the limited choices and paths of its characters and it works extremely well.
Fleischers direction throughout is superb; many of the scenes have an iconic feel to them, and the impact of the riot scene, with the human scoops, and the scenes at the end, in the waste disposal plant have lost none of their power to the years. One major strength of the film, though one that some might find infuriating, is the way in which it raises moral issues, but refuses to take a firm stance on them. A good example of this is the way the film deals with euthanasia, carried out for the good of the population. It's presented in a very straightforward and clinical way, and is all the more powerful for it. As an aside, if you do like your films spelled out for you and with full resolutions, look elsewhere.
Performances throughout are excellent, and Charlton Heston commands the screen with great aplomb. He's always a joy to watch, and his portrayal of the amoral Thorn stands as one of his finest moments. Support comes from the great Edward G Robinson, here in his last role, and Leigh Taylor-Young, both of who play their roles with great sympathy. One of the reasons why this film works so well is that the actors take it all very seriously, and there's no room for tongue in cheek here.
Soylent Green is multi-layered, complex sci-fi movie that still has the power to shock. It hasn't lost any of its power over the years. Without giving anything away, the end of the film is simple, subtle but all the more horrifying for it, and once the full implications have sunk in, as the end credits roll, it'll leave you with a nasty taste in the mouth.
Presented in it's original ratio of 2.40/1, this makes a welcome change from the cropped prints that have been available over the years. Anamorphic, the print has aged rather well, with no sign of print damage and no Edge Enhancement evident. It does tend to look rather soft in places, and some of the colours tend to bleed when they saturate the screen, but, on the whole, there's nothing to complain about here, and it looks better than you might expect. Sound is mono only, but rich, clear and it has depth.
There's a nice selection of extra's that come with this package, there's the obligatory Trailer, which you might want to watch after the main feature as it gives many plot details away, and with a plot as thin as Soylent Green, it's good to keep it as much of a surprise as possible. Suffice to say, it's very self-consciously futuristic and good fun. 2.35/1 and no subtitles.
You also get a small extract from the MGM party to celebrate The 101st film from screen legend, Edward G Robinson. Although short, at five minutes long, it is interesting and has some nice, off the cuff moments from Heston and Robinson and is quite moving. Full screen and subtitled.
Slightly more fun, is the period short A Look At The World Of Soylent Green which gives a potted history of the cinema's preoccupation with imagining the future. Liberally dotted with clips from Flash Gordon, Forbidden Planet and 2001, it attempts to put the image of the future presented in Soylent Green in some sort of context. A class apart from the sort of promo pieces we are used to now, this is intelligent, thoughtfully made and interesting. It features behind the scenes footage from the film and a fairly comprehensive look at the filming of the riot scene. Ten minutes long and it's presented full screen and is fully subtitled.
Best of the lot, though, unsurprisingly is the Commentary from Leigh Taylor-Young and Director Richard Fleischer. Fleischer's memory is good, and it's clear he loves talking about the movie. Recorded with Leigh Taylor-young's commentary, its interesting and informative. Both clearly are very proud of the movie and rightly so. There's no infuriating gaps, and lots of anecdotes and behind the scenes stories. It's what a good commentary should be. Unfortunately, it's not subtitled, and with the huge range of subtitles on offer, this looks like a serious oversight. Shame on you, Warners, shame.