Thursday, May 26, 2011

Soylent Green (USA, 1973)

OK, I'll admit it: there are films out there I have problems watching simply because of the creative personalities involved. I really find it difficult to watch a Leni Riefenstahl film, be it one she made or one she acted in, without feeling repulsed by the fact that I'm being mesmerized and amazed by an unapologetic major player in the propaganda machine of the Third Reich and a close friend of Adolph Hitler – hell, had he but snapped his fingers, she probably would have given him a blowjob with feeling. (Who knows, maybe she did.) Likewise, Lex Barker sort makes me feel nauseous: I can't see a film he's in without thinking "That child molester!" (See: Crane, Cheryl: Detour (1988), pp. 182–187.) If he did it once, he surely did it again – and that concept sort of makes even his six-pack repulsive. And then there's Charlton Heston, a liberal in his youth who became a brain-boiled and vocal right-wing conservative once he got too old to get an erection; it's hard to watch any of his films – even the more than occasional classic he took part in – without feeling at least an occasional pang of disdain and disgust.
But who am I to let personal opinions get in the way of my viewing choices – particularly when it comes to viewing a new release of one of Chuck's three seminal science fiction films. Alongside the original Planet of the Apes (1968 / trailer) and Omega Man (1971 / trailer), Soylent Green is without a doubt one of the highlights of the twilight of the man's career as a headlining box-office draw. (Many people also see Return to the Planet of the Apes [1970 / trailer] as additional highlight, but aside from the fact that film starred more of James Franciscus's sweaty and leanly muscular torso than it did the aging and bad-toothed Heston, the film is way too fanatical to be any good – I can't watch the flick without thinking that Bin Laden would probably do the same thing today, too, if he could.*)
Soylent Green is rumored to be on its way to remake hell, so a second viewing seems in order – especially since the first (and last) time I saw it was the year it came out, way back before I even knew what men and women really do when they take a shower together.
What can I say but that the film has aged well and is still as good as I remembered it to be....
Loosely based on the 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, Soylent Green is set in 2022 NYC in a world where the greenhouse effect has long burnt the world brown, progress has bled the world dry, and mankind has played bunny rabbit to the point of total overpopulation – a point well conveyed in what is probably one of the best opening credit sequences ever made: a 2-minute long masterpiece of editing and montage created by Chuck Braverman. In 2022, fresh food is a luxury of the rich, as is running water, cigarettes, electricity, clean clothes and virtually everything else we of the western world take for granted today…
Of course, 2022 looks remarkably retro now: when they made the film, the now-dead director Richard Fleischer (the son of Max Fleischer and the director of Conan the Destroyer [1984 / trailer], Mandingo [1975 / trailer], The Boston Strangler [1968 / trailer], Fantastic Voyage [1966 / trailer], Compulsion [1959 / trailer], 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea [1954 / trailer] and The Narrow Margin [1952 / trailer] – to name but a few of his better films) went for a future-like-now look, but now the now-look of the film is already almost 40 years old. But this outdated look rather helps, for Soylent Green is as much a dystopian science fiction film as it is a crime thriller, and the oddly retro look of the film suits the detective aspect well.
Likewise, Fleischer never gets to flashy or too staid in his direction, and instead simply keeps the film moving smoothly and quickly along, pausing only long enough to occasionally offer embellishments that assist in making the world and events more believable and tragic, making the events hit closer to the bone, making the given character more fleshed out. OK, the blood does look incredibly fake even for the 70s, and the night-time streets and alleys are oddly noirishly empty for a world in which stairwells are overcrowded with sleeping itinerants and cars are used as homes, but the film is so involving and enthralling that such flaws are easily overlooked. Particularly critical folks might bitch that the film has absolutely no special effects, but hell, it really doesn't need them.
Charlton "Spare the gun, spoil the child" Heston does an exceptionally effective and believable job playing Thorne, a typically overworked and corrupt but also observant and intelligent cop sent to investigate the murder of a retired businessman named William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotten of Citizen Cane [1941 / trailer], The Third Man [1949 / trailer], Lady Frankenstein [1971 / trailer / full film] and Guyana: Cult of the Damned [1979 / trailer], amongst others). Thorne is assisted at home by his roommate research assistant Sol (E. G. Robinson of Key Largo [1948 / trailer], The Stranger [1946 / full film], Scarlet Street [1945 / full film], The Woman in the Window [1944 / trailer] and many other classics, in his last film role), and though they bicker like a couple heading for divorce their deep friendship is apparent. In the course of his investigations Thorne ends up developing feelings for the "furniture" named Shirl at Simonson's apartment (a delectable Leigh Taylor-Young of I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!** [1968 / trailer] and Looker [1981 / trailer]) and becomes convinced that Simonson was not killed in a bungled robbery but assassinated. And ain't it odd that Simonson’s bodyguard/chauffer Tab (Chuck Connors of Tourist Trap [1979 / trailer] and The Butterfly Revolution [1987 / trailer]) can afford to buy his furniture Martha (Paula Kelly of Cool Breeze [1972 / trailer], Tough Guys [1974 / trailer] and Drum [1976 / trailer]) 150-dollar jars of strawberry jam?
When Thorne asks too many questions, he gets told by his boss Chief Hatcher (Brock Peters of Slaughter's Big Rip-Off [1973 / trailer] and To Kill a Mockingbird [1962 / trailer]) to lay off the case, but that only makes Thorne more determined to find out the truth, especially after someone tries to kill him. Sol, however, is the first to discover the truth, and realizing that he can no longer live in the world as it is, he decides to "go home," a euphuism for taking advantage of the state-supplied and -assisted suicide services. Thorne arrives too late to save his friend, but for the first time in his life he sees (on film) the beauty the world once was.
And then, Thorne decides to find out what exactly happens to the body…
Soylent Green: a classic sci-fi detective film from the 70s, intelligent and well made, thought-provoking and intriguing, that remains ageless even as it ages. Well worth watching if you have not yet seen it, and well worth watching again if you have…

* This review was written before he supposedly was killed and his body was flown to Afghanistan for burial at sea. As we all know, Afghanistan has such nice beaches.

**Go here for the real recipe for Alice B. Toklas fudge, not brownies. It tastes great!

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