a critiQal film review Soylent Green (1973)

Plot: In a densely overpopulated, starving New York City of the future, NYPD detective Robert Thorn (Heston) investigates the murder of an executive at rations manufacturer Soylent Corporation. With the help of elderly academic Solomon "Sol" Roth (Robinson), Thorn begins to make real progress - until the governor mysteriously pulls the plug. Obsessed with the mystery, Thorn steps out from behind the badge and launches his own investigation into the murder.

833 words (Est. Reading Time 4m 9s)

Thanksgiving is traditionally a time when the family comes together, settles in, and enjoys a big meal. As it turns out, this Thanksgiving is also the start of a new tradition here at critiQal: TBT Reviews! Since Throwback Thursdays have become a thing, it just seems fitting to post a Retro Review on Thursdays, rather than Saturdays.

Up first, just in time for Thanksgiving, we settled in to watch a film we’d been meaning to watch for years, but just never got around to: Soylent Green. A classic starring Charlton Heston, it seemed just the right fit for Thanksgiving.

But, had the decades been kind to Soylent Green, or had the now-classic line spoiled the film for future generations? Before settling in for our big meal, we decided to find out for ourselves.

Back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, Charlton Heston was a popular actor, with hits like Planet of the Apes (1968), Ben-Hur (1959) and The Omega Man (1971) (among others) under his belt. So it seemed like a catch when he was nabbed for Soylent Green. And it’s not that bad of a fit, really. As usual, he has a commanding presence on-screen, and while it’s a bit muted in this film, it’s enough to keep the viewer interested in what happens to him.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for the rest of the cast. Leigh Taylor-Young and Brock Peters get most of the rest of the screen time, and their presences aren’t nearly as strong as Heston’s. Thankfully, with Heston getting most of the screen time, that doesn’t matter quite as much. The audiences focus stays on the guy who can handle it, and Soylent Green makes sure to keep it on him as much as possible.

Back in the 70’s, this was probably a shocking film, but like the twist endings in The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense (1999), Soylent Green loses a bit of it’s appeal when the viewer already knows the ending. And, with the classic movie line that gives away that ending now a part of pop culture history, chances are the average viewer is already going to know what secret the film is hiding.

It’s too bad, really. With such a classic line from Charlton Heston giving away the twist ending, Soylent Green now comes off as rather dull. Since the film spends most of it’s running time slowly building up to that twist, the viewer may find themselves losing interest part of the way through the film. With the surprise ending already revealed by the passage of time since the film’s release, it’s hard to stay tuned to find out an answer the viewer already knows. Unlike The Sixth Sense (1999), Soylent Green isn’t as good of a movie without the surprise, and viewers may feel a bit of a pang of regret at not being able to experience what this film once was.

Then again, it’s hard to take a movie seriously that is so outdated. Futuristic films from so many decades ago usually have a rougher time of weathering the years than other genres of films. It’s hard for the films of yesteryear to represent a decent estimate of today’s world with the tech they had to work with back then, so it’s likely that the “futuristic” representation they worked so hard on will come across as outdated and laughable by today’s standards. Even if they try to keep the tech in the film to a minimum, something – either the size of the computers or some other item they didn’t foresee – will trip them up in a big way.

And Soylent Green is no exception. Despite being set in the “far-off” future of 2022, the props are easily recognizable as more 70’s era than anything futuristic (or even current). This is especially noticeable in a sequence that shows one of the characters playing a game that bears more than slight resemblance to the classic Atari game Asteroids – complete with those early graphics. Even the giant vid screens, (which actually more resemble the current flat-screen TVs of today than the old-school TVs present in the film) are hampered by the film’s obviously early use of green screens.

While Charlton Heston still commands the screen with his presence, the rest of Soylent Green hasn’t fared as well in the intervening years. With the rest of the cast not able to command the screen at all, the outdated “futuristic” tech, the bad (by today’s standards) special effects and the now-famous movie quote spoiling the surprise ending, it’s not hard to see where time has worn away the effects of this film.

Still viewable, Soylent Green is only a shadow of the film it used to be. While Charlton Heston is still decent to watch, the rest of the film may cause the casual viewer to walk away feeling sad. Not really because of the film itself, but more a pang of nostalgia for the early 70’s, when Soylent Green hadn’t been so ravaged by the passage of time.

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