Running time: 97 min.
The future is bleak in the year 2022. Soylent Green provides us with that narrative through still photos that show the perilous industrial and human evolution accompanied by a score that changes tone with the times. The audience could have just as easily been given some on-screen text to provide the backstory, but it is much more effective to show the audience how out-of-control things have gotten in this future world. After that opening segment is presented, we then get the scene in New York, where the population there alone is forty million people. It's so overpopulated that people, men, women and children, sleep on stairwells, as our star, Charlton Heston, has to climb over them without stepping on them. Resources have been so severely depleted that food needs to be rationed out, and it comes in the form of something called Soylent Green, which resembles a green cracker. It is stated that Soylent Green is made from plankton from the ocean, but demand is greater than the supply. So the setting has been provided and it is most bleak.
Heston plays police detective Thorn and he lives with his "police book", Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), an old-timer who remembers the days when things were so much better. Sol assists Thorn with his case work, as he works with The Exchange, a group of studious elderly people cooped up in what resembles an old library. Sol also keeps the electricity going in the apartment he shares with Thorn by getting on a stationary bike and pedaling in order to charge the batteries that run the lights. Thorn's latest case is the murder of a wealthy man named Simonson (Joseph Cotten) in a high-rise apartment that is in stark contrast to the gritty, broken down streets below. Fashionably furnished, Simonson lives there with his "furniture", Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young). She's called "furniture" because she came with the apartment. Simonson sees his murderer coming and the brief discussion indicates that Simonson himself deems his murder necessary in order to protect the way things are. When Thorn shows up to investigate, he meets Shirl as well as Simonson's bodyguard Tab (Chuck Connors). He sees the luxuries provided to Simonson, and takes it upon himself to take some of the items home, such as a bar of soap, some booze and a piece of beef. Neither of these things have been seen down on the streets in some time, and the scene shows just how desperate honest people have gotten. Thorn stands under Simonson's air conditioning, he washes his face with his running hot water, and takes things home, seeing as how Simonson will no longer need them since he's dead. When Sol sees a slice of beef, he breaks down in tears, wondering where things went wrong.
As Thorn delves further into his investigation, he finds that he's getting a little too close to answers because he is being tailed, and then his chief, Hatcher (Brock Peters), calls the case closed, even as Thorn refuses to sign the statement, saying that he won't falsify information. Meanwhile, Sol has taken reports provided to him by Thorn to The Exchange, where they have deduced the secret that killed Simonson. The horror of the secret is so great, that old Sol decides to call it a day and go "Home", which is a facinating place where people go to willingly euthanize themselves with twenty minutes of dignity. There people are provided comfort, lights in their favorite color, their choice of music and a video montage of beautiful scenery, the likes which have since long been forgotten. It provides them with a final dignified moment, before they are carted off in garbage trucks to a "waste facility".
Director Richard Fleischer does an excellent job of setting the tone and atmosphere of this chilling, depressing future. We get a scene where a riot breaks out over the lack of Soylent Green, and trucks are brought in to scoop up the rioters and toss them in the back to be disposed of. This scene sums up the desperation from both the people in need, and the people in charge of maintaining law and order. As noted earlier, there is also the contrast of the rich, luxurious apartments with the broken down morality of the streets below, showing how there are still good things to be had to those precious few that can afford them.
This was Edward G. Robinson's one hundred first film, and his last, as he passed away after completing the movie. His performance anchors the film, as he portrays Sol as an intelligent, compassionate human who has seen and lived through better times, and is horrified at the indignities brought on to mankind, leading him to the only possible solution remaining in order to escape. Heston as Thorn provides his usual strong leading performance as the honest cop. However, the scenes with Leigh Taylor-Young were awkward and the chemistry felt off. Taylor-Young's character apparently had fallen in love with Thorn, but their scenes together didn't really complete that feeling.
The closing scenes were well done and watching Heston figure out what was really going on was shot and framed in a logical manner. The setting of the film smothered the murder investigation plot, as the horrific atrocities of the future took the center stage. Overall, Soylent Green is a very good science-fiction film, with a few slow spots in the middle, as the relationship between Thorn and Shirl develops, which sidetracks things slightly.
One can only hope that when it is our time to go, no matter what is going on around us, we get that moment of dignified tranquility that we feel we deserve. This film tells us that there can be moments of beauty found amidst chaotic times, but we have to seek them out.