Monday, April 17, 2017

But Is It Gluten-Free?

Like many of my Generation MilleXial brethren, my introduction to Soylent Green came via the one and only Phil Hartman.

Sure, that '90s Saturday Night Live sketch might have spoiled the ending of one of sci-fi's most famous movies, but it still piqued my interest enough to give the film a go. It's now been a good 20+ years since I've last watched Soylent Green, and while DVR'ing off of TCM isn't that impressive a future over renting a VHS, it's still quite a thing to see with 2017 eyes. 

Quick Plot: It's the year 2022(!), and the world's population is exploding. Over 40 million people now live in the New York City area, so while I may have thought my first few Manhattan apartments, with their shared bathrooms and converted closet-space-to-bedrooms were small, I now see that I was indeed a spoiled, spoiled urbanite. 

With the world being a mess of pollution (whaaaaaaa? NEVER!) fresh food is a luxury only the 1% can afford. The rest of the proletariat "enjoys" nutritional products put out by the Soylent Corporation, supposedly plankton-based squares of protein. When one of Soylent's top executives, William Simonson, is found dead, Detective Thorn (full-toothed and scarfed Charlton Heston) suspects murder, something the deceased's business associates are quick to cover up. 

On hand to help Thorn is Sol (the great Edward G. Robinson), his elderly roommate who reminisces about a time when food came from the earth, and Shirl, the beautiful "furniture" that came with the corpse Thorn investigates. Thorn suspects Simonson's bodyguard Tab Fielding (Tourist Trap's Chuck Connors) of foul play, especially considering the working class hotshot is enjoying such luxuries as $150 bottles of strawberry jam for his girlfriend.

If you've lived in any kind of pop culture space during the last 50 years, you probably know the real twist of Soylent Green's big reveal. I suppose the biggest question one might have in deciding whether to give this film a shot is whether that matters. 

Sure, it would probably be much more rewarding to experience Soylent Green without any foreknowledge of, you know, what the titular meal replacement is made of, but in my opinion, this remains a worthwhile watch. Directed by Conan the Destroyer's Richard Fleischer, the film isn't necessarily a landmark in the genre, but like a lot of its ilk from the '70s, there's something fascinating in its somehow dated-but-ahead-of-its-time conceits of the future.  

Yes, Soylent Green, like Logan's Run or Zero Population Growth, looks like a movie about the future that came out of the 1970s. And while we may be further from 5 years away from SPOILER ALERT, packaging our elderly into cracker squares, one can't read a newspaper today without thinking, "yeah, that's not the most outlandish 2022."

The film itself is flawed, but entertaining. Fleischer's future has a great smoggy grain about it that drives home the world's ugliness, with the contrast of Simonson's luxury high-rise and its artificial charms. Heston is at his masculine muggiest, but is wonderfully softened at times by his relationship with Robinson's Sol. While I would have enjoyed more exploration of society, the film does an interesting job of establishing a bleak, but livable future, particularly in how it uses the dirty, sad mobs that seem to pile up on staircases, in churches, and on the streets.

High Points
You know that moment in Wayne's World 2 when Wayne stops at a gas station for directions, and Mike Meyers breaks the fourth wall to ask for a better actor to elevate the material (and fittingly enough, Charlton Heston wanders in to deliver the scene)? I also call this the "Peter O'Toole Saves Troy" performance, wherein an older thespian shows up in supporting role to elevate everything around him. That's how I feel about Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green. He's just so damn good, and everything around him is better when he's onscreen

Low Points
Look, I know the big announcement of the reveal is an AFI greatest line and touchstone in pop culture, but the film's actual ending somehow feels a tad disappointing, with a sort of open-endedness that feels more unresolved than ambiguous

Lessons Learned
Old people cry a lot

Lettuce will never be exciting, even if the world hasn't had fresh food in decades

In the future, never stand too close to detectives unless you plan on being shot. The dude goes through pedestrians faster than Spinal Tap drummers

Don't avoid actually watching Soylent Green just because you know the final line. While this isn't a masterpiece of cinema, it is a hallmark of American science fiction, and it has enough truly memorable parts to make it well worth the 100 minute investment. 

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