With Netflix making so many movies available to download instantly, I have taken to watching a lot of movies that I wouldn’t rent at a video store. Most of these are older movies, or movies that I remember having heard about but not having had a particular desire to watch. In some cases they are classics, in some cases they are movies that were recommended or talked about by friends or family members. I figured since I am taking the time to watch them, I may as well take the time to write down what I think. The first up on that list is one that I have been hearing about my entire life: Soylent Green.
Soylent Green was made in 1973, and stars Charlton Heston and a bunch of other people that are way out of my generation, but that my mother will probably flay me for not mentioning here. I have been hearing references made to this movie my entire life, and as such decided I had better go ahead and watch it. This one was not available on Netflix when I watched it though; I happened to see it in a 3/$10 bargain movie bin, and I dropped 3 large (and 33 1/3 small) to buy it. I knew literally nothing about the movie going in except that it was often used in references to cannibalism. I didn’t know who was in it or what it was about, but I mistakenly thought that Soylent Green was a chemical similar to the Agent Orange that was put to use during the Vietnam War. Which didn’t turn out to be the case.
For being shot in 1973, I was surprised that the video quality held up as well as it did. Aside from the fact that everyone in the film was dressed in late 60s fashion and all the decorations were also clearly contemporary to that era -which doesn’t make sense when you think about it, since it is supposedly happening in 2022- it wasn’t too painful to watch. The acting, on the other hand, was fairly godawful. This isn’t a criticism of this particular movie though, just the way acting was done back then; it seems fairly clear that prior to around 1980 if you wanted to be in the movie business you had to overact. William Shatner takes a lot of flak for his overacting in the Star Trek series, but if you watch any movies from that era overacting was the status quo. Today we take for granted that a good actor should appear to be actually experiencing the plot as it unfolds, while for actors a few decades ago it seems more that they were trying to convey a more if-this-was-really-happening-and-I-were-to-recount-it-later-in-overly-dramatic-fashion-this-is-what-it-would-look-like approach. Heston delivers that approach with brilliance in this one.
The story in Soylent Green is actually fairly topical, even today, and seems more and more so with every passing day. The basic gist is that in the future over-population and all forms of pollution have led to the few remaining citizens living in a police state where real food is such a luxury that many have never actually tasted “real” food and subsist solely on Soylent food wafers -government provided, dog biscuit like patties, of which the most popular (and theoretically tasty) is the green wafer. This applies to the general populace, of course; the tremendously rich have seemingly bought off the government and police, living in luxury while the average Joe lives in poverty. The dead are collected in an a garbage truck and taken outside the city walls for disposal. This all seems pretty plausible.
The plot, as far as I could tell, was about one of these police trying to solve the murder of someone wealthy and therefore powerful. As his investigation unfolds, he uncovers a huge government conspiracy that ultimately leads to the revelation that Soylent Green is made from … wait for it … wait for it … people!
The part I don’t get about the movie is why that matters. In this future police state no other animals exist, there are only (extremely rare) books with photos of them. But there doesn’t appear to be any farming going on either, since things like trees are in the same books and looked on with the same wonder and astonishment. So, hypothetically, if there aren’t any animals and there isn’t any farming, what are we supposed to be eating?
For me, I think that the reason that this movie is held in such high regard by those who were old enough to watch it when it was released had more to do with that era than with the film itself. With the Vietnam war on everyone’s mind, and the threat of communism -perceived by most at the time as a police state similar to that of the movie- the possibility that the government would herd people up like cattle and force them to live like this probably struck a nerve. They probably saw this, at least subconsciously, as something that might happen not as an eventuality due to lack of agriculture or overpopulation, but what might happen if Communism got a foothold in America. With all that so fresh in their minds, and then with the Arab oil embargo forcing the national consciousness to rethink the overuse of finite resources, it gets a bit easier to understand why this film might have a bit more meaning to my parents than I am able to glean from it.
Plus it makes me think twice before using the term “overacting” to describe any actor’s performance in a modern film.