I’ve never watched SOYLENT GREEN because I know how it ends. Dumb. If you are like me and have avoided watching the movie because you know the big twist (which I won’t give away on the odd chance you’ve never heard of the film), rectify that mistake. Because while I knew where SOYLENT ended up, I had no idea that journey there was going to be so interesting.
First, this is a detective film inside a dystopian. Charlton Heston plays Detective Thorn, and he is every bad cop ever. He steals from crime scenes, he smacks suspects around, he smacks women around, he sleeps with the dead man’s woman, he starts using the dead man’s apartment as his own place, and he’s insubordinate. He’s a horrible dude, but he’s not presented as a horrible dude. Instead, he’s all of these negative traits are depicted as if they’re what everyone does. It’s a smart bit of world-building. I just read a book (which I won’t name) that had to do world-building and they made it so heavy-handed that it nearly took me completely out of the story. Just because you’ve designed a world doesn’t mean we need to hear every last damn line from your notes. We don’t. Build worlds by showing us the least amount we need to see to get the point and then expand on it after the foundation has been established, but only when it’s done in service to the story.
The book I read was like, Here’s some history of this world. Me: How does this relate to the plot? Book: Here’s some more history. Me: But how does it–?Book: HISTORY! In contrast, SOYLENT GREEN (directed by the talented Richard Fleischer) builds the world through the story, not outside of it. When Thorn shows up at the luxury apartment where the murder has taken place, he’s more interested in raiding the place than he is doing that thing detectives do when they stand over a body, stare at it knowingly, pull up their pants, and kneel to get a better look. But while I’m thinking Thorn is an ass for stealing, I start noticing what he’s stealing, which includes a bar of soap that he looks at as if it’s the Holy Damn Grail. Items that we take for granted, like strawberries and hot water, are luxury items and Thorn is reacting as our proxy in this world.
Another example of worldbuilding comes in the treatment and depiction of women. The dead man’s girlfriend isn’t actually his girlfriend. She’s essentially a slave that comes with the apartment. Women in her position are referred to as “furniture,” which is every bit as horrible as it sounds. Lest we start thinking Thorn is some kind of hero, he comes to the apartment one night and orders her into bed, then has sex with her. It’s pretty horrible, but this is a horrible world, and that Thorn isn’t a hero helps make his growing investment in the story all the more compelling. (Repeat after me: no one needs to “relate” to the lead, we just need to find them compelling, and Thorn is compelling.)There’s two Hollywood legends in supporting roles in SOYLENT GREEN: Joseph Cotten and Edward G. Robinson, in his last role. (Also, Dick Van Patten, Brock Peters, and Chuck Connors.) There’s a scene of assisted suicide that is damn near beautiful, with the witnesses overcome as the dying individual is played off this mortal coil with images from the natural world that used to be. SOYLENT GREEN is a highly compelling film about ugly people in an ugly world. Good movie, and currently streaming on HBO Max.