Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Soylent Green

I just watched Soylent Green for the first time. This is a review, forty years late.

Let me begin by saying that I gravitate toward classic film noir. Of course, no one seems to be able to say what exactly film noir is; it's a fuzzy set, I suppose, defined by proximity to certain central films. Stylistically, it recalls German Expressionism, with low-key lighting, night-for-night shooting, sharp chiaroscuro, asymmetrical picture formats, unusual angles, an emphasis on stark lines and patterns, an equation of actors with objects, etc. Thematically it varies, but always carries a sense of emotional detachment; this is tied to its style.

This isn't to say that the stories are less than engrossing. On the contrary. But emotional involvement in minimal. The protagonists are frequently annoying or despicable, and even when they're not, you're not so much afraid of what's going to happen to them as interested to see what form their own particular doom is going to take. This appeals to me; being autistic, I'm generally unresponsive on an emotional level, but once my emotions do get stirred they flare up almost uncontrollably, and I get really agitated and lose a lot of sleep. So, in general, I avoid movies that try to stimulate empathy and that kind of thing. Which means that noir films are perfect for me.

What ever happened to film noir, really? Did it die, or just morph into other forms? At the time, of course, no one really knew they were making noir films. That would have ruined it. And that's part of the answer right there. It's hard to make a self-conscious noir film that isn't really stupid. A voiceover and a trench coat do not a film noir make. It's not a genre! More than that, though, I think movies with that much detachment are just a hard sell. Theater-goers, God bless them, want to care about the characters, or at least want to feel like the movie wants them to care about the characters.

Which brings us to future noir or tech noir or whatever you want to call it. My personal theory is that the reason so many noir elements get reincarnated in science fiction films nowadays is that people will go see a sci-fi film simply because it's sci-fi. The futuristic elements add an extra level of interest that makes up for the lack of emotional investment. Plus, dystopian visions — which are inherently attractive for various reasons (what a chimera is man!) — naturally go hand in hand with doom and predestination. There was always something dystopian or post-apocalyptic about film noir and the hard-boiled genre.

The difference is that, in future noir, instead of Robert Mitchum or Fred MacMurray chain-smoking cigarettes while narrating his fall, it's the whole ruined world doing a voiceover. You could even argue that the careful attention to set design in future noir (which sometimes comes at the expense of acting and plot, as in Blade Runner) reflects the visual equation of persons with objects and the sense of alienation so prevalent in film noir. Unfortunately future noir has become a Thing now, so that big directors try to make big-budget future-noir films and botch it.

At any rate, I have to regard Soylent Green as one of the first true future noirs. It features two of the great noir stars — Edward G. Robinson (who steals every scene in every movie he's in, and who died a mere twelve days after making SG) and Joseph Cotten — and thus links true film noir with its bastard offspring. Charlton Heston, the lead actor, also starred in the last of the great noirs, Touch of Evil, a film in which Cotten had a cameo role.

Further, SG leaves the viewer emotionally detached. The citizens of the horribly overcrowded New York of the future evoke fear and disgust rather than sympathy. We aren't particularly concerned with the protagonist's ultimate fate, either, but with his actions as he goes about a murder case and the generally brutal life of a police officer in 2022. And the sequence in which Robinson's character flees the horror of the world by going "Home" (checking in at a euthanasia clinic) is more full of dark irony than pathos.

I have to admit that I found the part where Heston's character sneaks through the Soylent Green factory genuinely horrifying, despite knowing (as I suppose everyone does) the precise ingredients of that nutritious little wafer. On that note, it's interesting, isn't it, that several scenes, including the final one, take place in a Catholic church crowded with homeless people, a church in which Mass is no longer said because there's no room for it? Soylent Green is thus the antitype of the transubstantiated Host. The cooked meal shared by the detective and his partner has strongly Eucharistic overtones as well.

I also admire the production design. The flat where Cotten's character is murdered and where the protagonist subsequently romances the house "furniture" (apartment concubine) is a beautiful retro picture of its time; it reminds me of a futuristic hotel I once stayed at in Amsterdam. The crowded streets and slums are quite effective as well, and the soothing, hospitable euthanasia clinic is exactly how I've always imagined such places.

We all know how the movie ends. What I never realized was that the horror comes, not from realizing the ingredients of Soylent Green, but from the sense of utter despair that man has been driven to feed on himself in his uttermost extremity, and that this is a dead end from which there will be no emergence. The last shot of the protagonist being borne out of the cathedral focuses on his his blood-drenched, raised hand, and fades beautifully into a field of red flowers and green grass, providing the perfect denouement to this bleak and paranoiac 70's film.

All that said, I do have a slight issue with the film's premise. It never states the world population, but Wikipedia tells me that in Make Room! Make Room! (the novel on which the film is based) the world population is 7 billion. Which is…about what it is right now. Less, actually. And, well, things aren't that bad, you know, globally speaking, and certainly not in the United States. Yes, I know that there's hunger in the world, but to me this seems due less to overcrowding than to social problems resulting from mass industrialization, exploitation, and the disruption of traditional norms and structures. Yes, we have to be prudent and look to our resources, but we also need to remember that people are people, deserving of dignity, and that for every new mouth to feed there are two hands, a brain, and a beating heart to make the world a better place.

When I was a kid I went to this week-long environmental training workshop. This was the early nineties, when everyone was talking about CFCs and acid rain; I recall that I was the only one there with a notebook made from recycled paper, and that my friends made fun of me for it. A very intense, angry man ran the session on population, and the image he painted of our future, unless drastic steps were taken right now, was Soylent Green on steroids, so bleak and horrifying and misanthropic that it literally took years to get it out of my system. Because I wholeheartedly believed it.

He was, I suppose, a disciple of Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 book The Population Bomb predicted mass starvation by the 1980s and other terrifying things that, disappointingly, did not come to pass. It's interesting to me that The Late, Great Planet Earth came out around the same time and continued to be popular long after its expiration date. I've always thought it would be interesting to do a parallel analysis of the two sets of readers.

Anyway, there's a disturbing scene in Soylent Green where "scoopers" (dump trucks with big buckets like front-end loaders) come in to quell a riot by scooping the people up in heaps and dumping them like garbage into the receptacles in back. Well, that's exactly where this alarmism about overpopulation gets you if you're not careful: into viewing human beings as garbage to be cleared out of the way or vermin to be exterminated or strays to be sterilized. What's more, when it comes to predicting the future, Ehrlich, et al., seem about as accurate with statistics as Tim LaHaye is with the Book of Revelation, and as apt to reinterpret things after the fact. So the model we're using to justify whatever control measures the leaders of the moment are telling us we need might very well be total crap. Frightening.

Welp, this is getting a little political, and I don't really care to go there on my blog, so I'll stop. I don't mean to fault the movie. Not in the least. It made me think, which is what sci-fi is supposed to do, right? If we extrapolate this trend, what will happen? Here's one possible answer. Actually, I think Soylent Green is a terrific movie, and vastly underrated for reasons that I don't entirely understand. So, if you haven't seen it, and you like future noir and dystopian sci-fi, please do yourself a favor and watch Soylent Green.



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