Soylent Green (1973)

Retro Review: Soylent Green (1973)

Here are some updated thoughts (2016):  Since I wrote this DVD review 17 years ago, some nutter has taken the premise of the movie (sans creepy part) and actually started a company called Soylent that makes “healthy, convenient, and affordable food engineered to provide all the protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and micronutrients that a body needs to thrive”.  In other words, tasteless baby formula sludge for adults.  Ummmm . . . how about NO!

What is the secret of Soylent Green?

Wow, you’re saying to yourself, what a freakin’ weird choice to review. It doesn’t have space, or spaceships, or robots, or pew pew lasers, or superheroes . . . ah yes but it does have one creepy proposal for things to come if our society doesn’t clean up its act and treat our planet with a little respect!  Only you die hard science fiction nerds out there like me have probably heard of Soylent Green.

Okay wait, time out . . . stop the hype train!

How many of you who claim to know the secret of Soylent Green (which everyone knows) has actually watched the entire movie, beginning to end . . . or own the DVD?  Come on, fess up!  I bet the ratio of people who know the secret of Soylent Green compared to people who have actually watched the entire movie is very small; much like the people who know the reference of “42” compared to those who have actually read the book it’s from is very small.  Okay, raise your hands: who knows this movie beginning to end?  That’s what I thought.  That’s okay, while it was a great decade for science fiction cinema, movies from the 70s (aside from Star Wars) is still an acquired taste for many.

Spoilers ahead.

But, before I start up the hype train again, a word of fair warning.  If you are one of the five people on Earth who does not know the secret, stop reading now . . . and go watch the movie.  Or, if you really want to know the secret of Soylent Green, and you honestly don’t know, just keep reading . . .

Soylent green is made from the recycled protein of dead humans from a massively overpopulated Earth . . . not from kelp and plankton of the sea. The world of 2022 is a world of unknowing cannibals.

I’m a downright sucker for some of Heston’s early sci-fi works as you will see in a later review (hint), and this movie has just enough of a hook for it to make an impression.

Soylent Green is based on Harry Harrison’s short novel, Make Room! Make Room! which was published in 1966, but in the movie the year is 2022. The population of New York City is 40 million, not including the rats and cockroaches. Most citizens are unemployed. The air is thick, hot, and heavy with pollution and smog; resources are scarce. The cost of living has exploded to the point where is costs $150 for a jar of strawberry jam. Throw into this mess Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) who begins the investigation of the death of a Soylent Corporation official, William Simonson.

What at first looks like a typical robbery turns out in fact to be an assassination. During the investigation Thorn gives his old friend, Sol (Edward G. Robinson), the classified Soylent Oceanographic Survey Report, 2015 to 2019 he finds Simonson’s posh apartment. Sol’s research reveals Simonson was a member of the board of Soylent Corporation. But Thorn doesn’t truly begin to understand the secret of soylent green until Sol decides to end it all through a state run euthanasia program . . . which is supposed to help keep the population under control.  Why would Sol choose to do this?  What did he discover about Soylent Corporation that would want him to commit suicide?

Soylent GreenIn a densely overpopulated, starving New York City of the future, NYPD detective Robert Thorn investigates the murder of an executive at rations manufacturer Soylent Corporation. With the help of elderly academic Solomon “Sol” Roth, 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.

Soylent Green

Director: Richard Fleischer
Starring: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor
Genre: Science Fiction
Media:  Film, 97 minutes
Rating: PG
Budget: na
Box Office: na
Year: April 19, 1973
4 out of 5 stars

Before I go on let me explain a little about the title of the movie. Soylent is a corporation . . . and it is a food. Resources have dwindled to nothing and soylent green is a highly nutritious food source created from kelp and such. Most of the population depends on it for survival since none but the rich can afford traditional (natural) food sources. Well, the secret of soylent green is something you’ll have to wait for until the very end!

The movie does a great job giving you the feeling of the hopelessness of the times. Overpopulation, starvation, pollution, despair, for want of even basic needs . . . this movie has just about every dystopian trope you can think of.  Charlton Heston does his best playing the hard as nails Detective Thorn who thinks he has the economic and political systems of 2022 figured out, but quickly comes to the realization that the entire system is a sham.  Edward G. Robinson puts in the best performance of the movie as Solomon “Sol” Roth, playing a “book” (researcher) who assists Thorn in his duties.  His performance, showing the hopelessness of the time, is the last he ever filmed.  Robinson died a mere twelve days after filming his euthanasia scene in Soylent Green.  In fact, the two very best and memorable scenes in the movie are the eating scene which represents hope; and the euthanasia scene, which represents despair.

Though not exactly an award winner (it did win a Nebula award for Best Script, 1974), Soylent Green is still a highly entertaining flick with a nice surprise ending. Don’t go looking for epic special effects, explosions, and aliens, you won’t find any. Now you can call me a nerd all you want, but I didn’t register the domain like this nerd did and make it my personal homepage! (Update:  The site is no longer active.)


Based on Harry Harrison’s book Make Room! Make Room!, Soylent Green serves up a future where despair and hunger loom over all sense of hope.  It’s a hyper-extrapolated look at the future based on the environmental movements begun in the 1970s (see also Silent Running).  Edward G. Robinson puts in the strongest performance of the film, working during his final days knowing he would soon die of cancer (only 12 days after his final scene).  Soylent Green is a movie oft quoted, but probably not oft watched.  It should be, it’s a product of one of the best decades in science fiction cinema, the 1970s.

Words © 1999-2020, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
Images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).

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