Soylent Green

(Richard Fleischer, USA, 1973)

BY STEVEN MEARS | March 1, 2022

There’s no crueler fate for an inventive, well-crafted film than being remembered solely for its twist ending, especially with said twist divulged through a line reading that oxidized into self-parody as soon as it entered the atmosphere. It’s likely that we all know what Soylent Green contains (it ain’t soybeans and lentils), but what’s gotten lost in a cultural composter that pulverizes nuance like a Soylent processing plant is one of the best and most prescient sci-fi cautionary tales, imagining the once-faraway world of 2022 New York City as a teeming urban jungle plagued by class unrest, police brutality, top-down corruption, and dwindling nourishment due to depleted oceans. There’s even a crowd scene where food-seekers appear in masks identical to our ubiquitous N95s. Yesterday’s dystopian world-building is today’s docurealism.

Directed by Hollywood veteran Richard Fleischer (fresh from the UK psychological-horror films 10 Rillington Place and See No Evil), Soylent Green features two of the most heartrending sequences in the annals of genre cinema, both centered on a 79-year-old Edward G. Robinson in his 101st and final film appearance. As Sol Roth, an elderly “book” (the name given to scholarly researchers who aid and cohabit with police officers—in Sol’s case, Charlton Heston’s dogged investigator Frank Thorn), Robinson frequently waxes nostalgic about the bygone days when flora and fauna were as plentiful as non-synthetic food. Thorn raids the pantry of an alleged murder victim (Joseph Cotten)—a one-percenter who’d sat on the board of the Soylent company, there discovering secrets hazardous to his health—and brings the spoils home to Sol, who prepares beef stew and other delicacies never experienced by the younger detective. The euphoria Robinson brings to the scene is twofold: jubilation that his protégé can finally savor the sensations he’s extolled so many times, and relief that awareness of these smells, tastes, and textures will not pass into eternity when he does.

That departure comprises the other haunting episode, wherein Sol, like Cotten’s conscience-stricken dignitary, opts not to continue living with the diabolical secret of Soylent Co., so he reports to a state-run euthanasia clinic (the one prophecy of the film that hasn’t been realized—yet). Before his elective termination, he’s treated to 20 minutes of IMAX-like footage of breathtaking natural beauty accompanied by the music of his choosing (“light classical”), which Thorn watches from the next room, horrified and perversely awestruck. His feelings are well-founded, given the film’s enduringly pertinent message: a government that doesn’t serve its people in one way will soon get around to serving them in another. 🩸


is the copy editor for Field of Vision’s online journal Field Notes and for Film Comment magazine, as well as a frequent contributor to Film Comment, Metrograph’s Journal, and other publications. He wrote a thesis on depictions of old age in American cinema.

TWITTER: @mearsontap

How to see Soylent Green

The film is also available on DVD and Blu-ray from Warner Bros.
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