Aug 18 2011 1:41pm

Soylent Green and the Square Jaw of the Law

Soylent Green was the first science fiction movie I saw with a law enforcement officer as the hero. I’d seen scientists, square-jawed military men, even everyday folk driven to heroism by events. But if cops were present, they were either sacrificed to demonstrate the power of the villainous forces, or like the military — narrow-mindedly opposed to the heroes’ sensible ideas. In other words, even when monsters and aliens were involved, cops were still The Man.

And no one is more The Man than Charlton (a.k.a. Moses, Ben-Hur, Michelangelo, El Cid) Heston. This was the period when Heston, ending his era as a leading man and moving into character parts, cannily played against his epic hero status (nowhere done better than in the original Planet of the Apes). Here he’s Thorn, a cop on the edge (of boredom), part of an overworked and underfunded New York City force that essentially goes through the motions out of habit more than a desire to serve and protect. When a rich industrialist is murdered, Thorn’s investigation consists mostly of raiding the dead man’s apartment for goodies he can’t afford on his policeman’s salary. No one questions this; it’s become that kind of world.

Later, when the obligatory call to close the investigation comes down because Thorn’s gotten too close to the truth, he defies his superiors and continues, because This Time It’s Personal. As the implications of global scandal and disaster become clearer, the audience doesn’t worry: after all, if anyone can get to the truth and stop the evildoers, it’s the man who split the Red Sea and painted the Sistene Chapel. And nothing about Heston’s performance indicates any irony: he’s playing straight, and serious, and heroic.

Yet when he discovers the truth, by following the body of his best friend from the suicide center to its eventual processing, you suddenly realize he can’t fix it. Just as in The Parallax View and Chinatown, two of the best-known nihilistic endings from the era, knowing the truth does Thorn absolutely no good. Not even Heston can solve this dilemma. And if a problem is bigger than Ben-Hur, it’s damn sure a big problem.

It takes an effort of will to watch the movie now without the knowledge of its climactic line—which has become both a cliche and a punch line—ruining the suspense. Sure, some things about Soylent Green are cheesy (part of that era’s standard approach of SF films made for fans, but not by them), but I’ve always found the flaws worth overlooking. And if you can manage it, you’ll find a serious film genre mashup and an actor playing against his public persona to great effect.

Alex Bledsoe, author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, and the forthcoming Dark Jenny), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the first Tufa novel, the forthcoming The Hum and the Shiver.

This article is part of Noir Week on ‹ previous | index | next ›
Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
Thanks, Alex.

I actually managed to see this film before the ending/line was spoiled for me. Darkly nihilistic, and powerful.

I watched the movie because I liked the book (Make Room Make Room) which is actually very different.
2. Jazzlet
I too saw this film with out knowing the ending, we had it at my school's Film Club, along with Silent Running the following week. Even though it was projected on a school small pop-up screen on a pretty rough projector with barely adequate sound it was absolutely gripping. Edward G Robinson was just heart-breaking to a normally unsentimental seventeen year old.
john mullen
3. johntheirishmongol
I saw this when it came out...lo, many many years ago. In its own way, it had a shocking ending even better than Apes. Lots o really good things to like about this movie. I am pretty sure Chuck enjoyed the anti-hero movies as much or more than the big blockbusters. Now I did have the advantage of reading Make Room, Make Room but it was considerably different. Edward G Robinson was always good, and made every role a bit better than it was written.
4. Jess, of the Bugs
I probably knew that Soylent Green was people before I started grade school, but I love the way in which this overpopulated, overpolluted world was painted. It had a realism to it that was a little uncomfortable--which was kind of the point. The best part of that ending is how he has to shout at the top of his lungs and there's not a grand reaction from the people that results in a happy ending. It just ends.
5. steve boyett
It's worth mentioning that this was Edward G. Robinson's last film. He was dying of cancer and knew it, and Heston knew it, and Heston has spoken about the scene in the euthanasia facility really being the two of them saying goodbye to each other, which is one of the reasons it has an emotional weight well above the rest of the film (which I think holds up surprisingly well despite a few things that were silly even when it was released, such as the Scoops).
6. Nicholas L. Garvery
I read a synopsis of this movie, and took a guess at what Soylent Green was before starting the movie. I guessed right. What shocked me most where the scenes were bulldozers were used (if I remember correctly) to control a riot.
Rich Bennett
7. Neuralnet
I saw this movie as a teenage boy so I was quite struck by the idea of "furniture girls"

The whole movie has a 1970s new york city feel to me. the ending definitely reminded me of planet of the apes. it was a great twist when you didnt see it coming.

I always suspected that starring in this movie, planet of the apes and omega man really pushed Heston into becoming a gun freak planning for a post apocolyptic future somehow.
Mike Conley
8. NomadUK
I've always considered it a shame more people didn't pay attention to this film when it came out. The revelation at The Exchange, which is the fundamental basis for everything happening in the film, is spot on and is quite likely happening right now.

I think the film was probably too optimistic.

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