Saturday, July 30, 2016

Soylent Green

   Soylent Green is still a movie about the future. Set in 2022, it paints a grim and depressing picture of a dystopian world that hits way too close to home. The movie opens on a montage of the United States' evolution over the years, from pastureland and pioneers, to concrete jungles and riot police. The latter seems less like science fiction and more like the evening news. In every way but it's vernacular and it's visual aesthetic, Soylent Green was ahead of it's time. For every beat that was socially relevant in the 70's, it's probably doubly so now- and that's scary. Nevertheless, it speaks volumes about the longevity of the movie that not only is it still relevant and timely, it's still damn entertaining to boot.

   Chuck Heston plays an NYC detective named Thorn. He lives in relative squalor like most other 40 million people in the city. When leaving his apartment building at night, he has to strategically hop over the dozen-odd people sleeping on the stairs. The streets are no better during the day. There's massive riots at the drop of the hat, and police are assigned 'riot duty' like if it was traffic duty or something. The few brief moments of joy in Thorn's life revolve around eating real food, and not bland 'Soylent' wafers. The role demands a casual griminess that is vastly unlike his usual heroic resolve. He's not the most upstanding person in the world or anything, he just happened to get assigned to case that would turn his own world upside down.

   The main plot of the movie has Thorn investigating the death of a rich mogul of some sort, but the more he digs, the lest convinced he is that it was a simple robbery gone south. Now, this stuff works really well, but it's fairly standard- even at the time of it's release. Heston himself rarely commands the screen as he's frequently upstaged by the visuals of this dystopic future. Everything is under a green haze, the city looks completely demilitarized, every single space is crammed full of people- unless you're rich. Then you've got room to breathe, hot water, fresh food, and 'furniture' that comes with your apartment. Which is actually just a not-so-fancy word for concubine. The late mogul's 'furniture' ends up falling for Thorn. Why? I'm not exactly sure. But the actress sells it well.

   Thorn ends up onto something huge and ominous, and you probably already know what it is, but that doesn't diminish it's revelation. In fact, it actually gave me a unique perspective while watching the movie. I got it, you know? I can see how society could get to a point where (spoilers?) the dead are recycled into a food source. 40 million people in New York City alone, 20 million unemployed. How many are sick and can't afford help? How many are starving and can't afford food? The world itself is in ecological ruin and they've harvested all they can from the Oceans. As horrifying as the thought is, recycling humans into food, it's nothing if not economical.

   It was frightening how plausible it seemed, especially in this day and age of wellfare, food stamps, and synthetic processed foods. The one extreme the movie embraces that I can't see happening anytime soon is that most people here have never seen any sort of beauty at all. Thorn is floored by a video reel of mountains, grassy hills, flowers, sunsets and wild animals. "I told you the world was beautiful." his dying friend tells him. "How could I have known?" Thorn replies, choked up. It's an immensely powerful scene, probably the best moment in the movie, but it's also pretty extreme. It teeters on far fetched. Even with how bad things are these days in the world, and even back then, you'd have to have a practically post-apocalyptic world in order to have characters who haven't even seen this stuff on TV.

   Nevertheless, the extreme approach suits the movie, and Heston carries it well. It's unsettling to see anyone so overjoyed about finding a place with the bare necessities that most in North America take for granted. When Shirl, the concubine, is trying to entice Thorn to stay the night with her- it's not the allure of sex that convinces him, it's the prospect of hot, running water, air conditioning, and eggs for breakfast. Kids aren't even that ecstatic on Christmas morning. These bits are when the movie thrives, and it's engrossing. The detective work is borderline tedious, but it serves it's purpose, so it's excusable.  As the movie goes on, large chunks of it play like a tour of this world. Scenes are there to let us explore the squalor and the societal norms that have evolved from this state.

   Chief among these scenes is the massive riot that Thorn finds himself in the middle of. Maybe a thousand people all enraged, lashing out in an area no bigger than an outdoor merchant square. Soon enough, 'scoopers' are called in. Massive bulldozers, that scoop up humans and dump them in huge trucks. It's stunning imagery, and effective as well. For as big and as sprawling as the city is, it's often reduced to either a sea of heads, or barren empty streets- enforced by a city-wide curfew. The contrast is stark, and scary. What's even more horrifying is how familiar this all looks. New York City might not look like this now, but you can't tell me you haven't seen comparable imagery on the evening news, depicting some third world country. News flash guys, we all live on the same planet, and I don't wanna be eating Soylent Green in another thirty years.

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