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Soylent Green

Year: 1973
Studio: MGM
Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: Stanley Greenberg, Harry Harrison
Cast: Charlton Heston, Edward G Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, Joseph Cotten, Dick Van Patten

It had been years since I watched this movie and as I'd been a young kid I was prepared for an epic, sweeping glipse of the future of America (although it's only a year away as I write this).

But two principles in media and technology apply that make it a very different experience today. The first is that when we watch movies as wide eyed kids enthralled at the magic on the screen, our imaginations do a lot of work plugging gaps. Yesterday's filmmaking techniques like the odd matte painting, the dramatic poster art and a bit of wacky set decoration can look pretty shoddy when we've seen a few decades of entire world realistically rendered thanks to CGI, and if you watch it today you can really see the joins because of budgets and technologies that were far lower scale back then.

So how you respond to the actual filmmaking will depend very much on where in history (both that of the movies and your own) you see it. It deals with a working schmoe in the domestic police force of a future New York, Thorn (Charlton Heston, who's theatrical, slice-tempered-steel-with-his-jaw manner is a little overripe as always). As much a slippery opportunist as many of the poor he's surrounded by, Thorn is investigating the murder of Simonson, a rich industrialist in his luxurious apartment.

He's aided by Sol Roth (Edward G Robison, who eerily and sadly died just days following the filming of his own death scene in the movie), the old and cranky researcher he lives with who combs any records he can get his hands on to help Thorn's caseload.

And the reason Simonson's apartment is such new territory for Thorn – who lifts soap, booze and whatever else he can carry whenver he returns to the crime scene – is because New York's population is 40 million, most of them destitute and sleeping in stairwells, the world ravaged by food shortages and poverty after devastating overpopulation (yes, this movie came out around the time of the highly influential 'we're breeding too much' movement that also gave The Club of Rome such a platform).

As well as being rich, Simonson was also a board member of the Soylent corporation, the company that produces one of three common foodstuffs upon which society now relies, fresh produce and meat a thing of the distant past.

As he looks into Simonson's murder and finds himself being followed by shadowy figures who make attempts on his life, Thorn is also drawn to Shirl, the woman who lived in Simonson's apartment and who represents what I thought was one of the most interesting parts of the story, the gender politics – both in themsvles and because of the era it was made.

Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), along with one or two other female characters we meet, are referred to as 'furniture'. They're basically chattel that are attached to a specific apartment or living place, bought and owned by and expected to sexually service whatever wealthy man buys the place.

It's interesting in itself because it represents a kind of regression in evolutionary history, when resources are in such high demand everything is a commodity to be bought and sold, including sexual access to women.

And it's interesting as a testament to Hollywood's ideas of how women responded to the iron jawed hunks of the silver screen in the early seventies. When Simonson dies, Shirl expresses her worry to Thorn about who she'll belong to next, reminding you of blacks in the slave era fearful that their next master will be brutal and cruel. But Thorn is as taken with her beauty as any man would be, and when he kind of expects her to go to bed with him she not only readily agrees but they end up in love.

Dodgy sexual politics aside, Thorn and Sol dig deeper when they find a kindly priest who's church is full of homeless refugees and who's carrying a terrible secret of his own that Simonson confessed before he was killed, and might have led to his murder.

Thorn resolves to go to the Soylent processing plant out of town to see what's really going on, hiding on top of one of the many trucks that ferry the dead out of the city and learning the awful truth about what the company is doing when it claims to make the titular food from ocean plankton.

The movie ends with Thorn, having fought back against yet another assassination attempt but badly injured, being taken from the church on a stretcher ranting like a madman. It's a brutally nihilistic finish to a downbeat and despairing film.

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