The year is 2022, and the world is overpopulated to the point of disaster. In New York City, population 40,000,000, Thorn (Charlton Heston) works as a detective. He is given the case of a murdered politician to investigate; it looks as if the wealthy man has been attacked by an intruder to his exclusive apartment, but Thorn is suspicious about the way his bodyguard (Chuck Connors) had been sent out and the security system had failed for the first time in two years. Could it have been an assassination? And could it be something to do with what the politician was threatening to reveal about the world's main producer of synthetic food, the Soylent Corporation?
"Mmmm... Soylent Green!" as Homer Simpson once observed. A despairing vision of a possible future, this was loosely adapted from Harry Harrison's award-winning novel "Make Room! Make Room!" by Stanley R. Greenberg. The environmental movement was well under way, and this film sets itself up as an awful warning of what could happen if we let the population get out of control: we have food shortages, the air is thick with pollution, and the Greenhouse Effect has made the temperature unbearable. Society is divided into the have and have-nots, the needy far outnumbering those with the privileges money brings, and you're lucky to get a place to live, never mind something to eat - like the much-in-demand Soylent Green.
Charlton Heston was well into his cycle of disaster movies by now, and he plays Thorn as you'd expect: honourable, tough minded, but sympathetic. He shares his flat with his valued friend, investigator Sol Roth, played by Edward G. Robinson in his last appearance. If Thorn is the man of action, Sol is the soul of the piece, and Robinson is wonderful in the role, striking an essential note of humanity. The scenes where Sol reminisces about the good old days, and enjoys the food and drink Thorn has stolen from the politician's store cupboard, are crucially convincing.
When Sol finds out what the food is made of, he opts for assisted suicide in a huge, anodyne production line that pipes in music and projects images of the world long gone into a euthanasia room. It's a surprisingly moving scene, not just because Robinson died not long after filming it, but because it's about the only point in the film where it shows an ordinary citizen being treated kindly and with respect for a change, even if it's in the process of ending his life. Everyone else is either part of the problem, or part of the minority working to make the wealthy comfortable, such as Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young) an attractive young woman who is "furniture" which comes with the politician's apartment.
Nowadays, it's common knowledge what Soylent Green actually is, as the story has one of those endings where even people who haven't seen it know what the big revelation is. All those citizens who start riots over the mystery food are unaware what it is they are craving; as the saying goes, if you really like sausages you should never see them being made. But the film heads so single-mindedly towards its horrified punchline that it's no wonder it has an unintentional campy tone, and couple that with the deliberate pace, it all doesn't quite have the necessary impact. I wonder what the workers in the Soylent factory eat? Music by Fred Myrow, along with various classical excerpts.