The film overlays the science fiction and police procedural genres as it depicts the efforts of New York City police detective Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) and elderly police researcher Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson) to investigate the brutal murder of a wealthy businessman named William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotten). Thorn and Roth uncover clues which suggest that it is more than simply a bungled burglary.
The film, which is loosely based upon the 1966 science fiction novel Make Room! Make Room!, by Harry Harrison, won the Nebula Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film in 1973.
Set in the year 2022, Soylent Green depicts a dystopian future in which the population has grown to forty million in New York City alone. Most housing is dilapidated and overcrowded, and the impoverished homeless fill the streets and line the fire escapes and stairways of buildings. Food as we know it today–including fruit, vegetables, and meat–is a rare and expensive commodity. Half of the world's population survives on processed rations produced by the massive Soylent Corporation (from soy(bean) + lent(il)), including Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow, which are advertised as "high-energy vegetable concentrates". The newest product is Soylent Green - a small green wafer which is advertised as being produced from "high-energy plankton". It is much more nutritious and palatable than the red and yellow varieties, but it is -- like most other food -- in short supply, which often leads to riots.
Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) is a New York City police detective who lives in a dilapidated, cramped one-room apartment with his aged partner Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson). Roth is a former professor who searches through the now-disordered remnants of written records and books to help Thorn's investigations. Roth and his like are known as "books". He tells Thorn about the times before the ecological disaster and population crisis, when real food was plentiful, although Thorn is generally not interested in the "stories".
Thorn is assigned to investigate the murder of William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotten). When he goes to the crime scene, he finds Simonson lying in a pool of blood from being struck multiple times in the back of the head. Instead of looking for clues, the poorly-paid detective helps himself to some of the wealthy man's food, liquor, soap, and books. He also questions Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), an attractive 24-year old prostitute (euphemistically known as "furniture") who comes with the luxury apartment, and Simonson's bodyguard, Tab Fielding (Chuck Connors), who claims that he was told to escort Shirl on a shopping trip when the attack took place.
Returning to his apartment, he gives Sol two large books he took from Simonson's apartment, the two-volume Soylent Oceanographic Survey Report, 2015 to 2019. Thorn returns to work and talks to the Chief of Detectives, telling him that he suspects it may have been an assassination, since nothing was stolen from the apartment and the murder seemed professional. He finds it odd that the luxury apartment's sophisticated alarm and monitoring electronics happened to be inoperative on the night of the murder, and his bodyguard just happened to be out of the apartment at the time.
After Thorn questions Fielding's live-in "furniture", he realizes she was eating from a "$150 a jar" container of strawberry jam, which is an out-of-place luxury for the prostitute of a bodyguard. He returns to his own apartment to eat a meal of the purloined food, where Sol tells him that Simonson was a member of the board of directors of the Soylent Corporation, one of the most powerful corporations in the world. He then returns to question Shirl, who tells him that Simonson had become deeply troubled in the days before his death, even taking her to church. Thorn later attempts to question the priest about Simonson's confession, but the priest is almost catatonic and does not reveal anything. Fielding later murders the priest to ensure he never talks. After Thorn begins to uncover evidence on why Simonson was murdered, New York Governor Santini (Whit Bissell) instructs Thorn's superior officer, Lieutenant Hatcher (Brock Peters), to close the investigation. However, Thorn refuses, and continues his investigation into the murder. Later, when Thorn is on riot duty during the distribution of rations, Simonson's murderer fires several shots at Thorn, wounding him, but Thorn is able to push his attacker under a riot control vehicle.
In the meantime, Roth goes over oceanographic reports that Thorn took from Simonson's apartment with other intellectuals at the "supreme exchange," a library of old books. The other books convince Roth of a "horrible" truth, which despite reading it for himself finds it almost impossible to believe. The "books" intend to use the overwhelming evidence against the Soylent Corporation and to prove what Soylent are doing before taking it to the Council of Nations. Unable to live with what he has uncovered, Roth opts for euthanasia (euphemistically known as "going home") at a government clinic. There, he is taken to a comfortable bed, is given a poison-laced beverage, and is shown panoramic views of an unspoiled pristine Earth as he dies. As Roth is viewing this, Thorn (who has since read a note from Roth that he is "going home") forces the staff to allow him to see and talk to Roth. He thus sees the earth as it once was for the first time. Overwhelmed at seeing what is for him such wondrous natural beauty, he is moved to tears. During Roth's final moments, he begs Thorn to prove the horrible truth about "Simonson... Soylent."
After Roth dies, Thorn sneaks into the basement of the euthanasia facility, where he sees corpses being loaded onto waste disposal trucks. He secretly hitches a ride on one of the trucks, which drives to a heavily guarded waste disposal plant. Once inside the plant, Thorn sees how the corpses are processed into Soylent Green wafers. After Thorn escapes from the plant and heads for the supreme exchange with the information, he is ambushed by Fielding and several other gunmen. In the shootout, Thorn kills some of the gunmen, but is himself wounded and retreats into a cathedral filled with homeless people. After a desperate fight, Thorn stabs and kills Fielding. When police backup arrives, the seriously wounded and nearly hysterical Thorn confides to Hatcher the horrible secret behind Soylent Green and urges him to spread the word: "Soylent Green is people! We've got to stop them somehow!"
The director Richard Fleischer, who began by shooting film noir thrillers after WWII, learned to do special effects in the 1950s and 1960s when he did a number of Science Fiction films such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Fantastic Voyage (1966). In the years before and after Soylent Green, Fleischer did films centering on famous serial killers and capital punishment (1968's The Boston Strangler and 1971's 10 Rillington Place) and the controversial and provocative Che Guevara biopic Che! (1969).
This was the 101st and last movie in which Edward G. Robinson appeared. He died from cancer twelve days after the shooting was done, on January 26 1973. Robinson had previously worked with Heston in The Ten Commandments (1956). The female lead character, Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), is briefly seen playing a Computer Space arcade game, an early depiction of the 1970s pop culture phenomenon of videogames. The game was similar toAtari's popular "Asteroids" video arcade game, in which a triangular space capsule blasts away at asteroids on a collision course with the capsule. However, this game was not released until 1979, six years after the release of the film.
The "going home" score in this part of the film was conducted by Gerald Fried and consists of the main themes from Symphony No. 6 ("Pathétique") by Tchaikovsky; Symphony No. 6 ("Pastoral") by Beethoven; "Morning Mood" and "Åse's Death" from the Peer Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg. As the music plays, scenes of majestic natural beauty are projected on film screens: "deer in woods, trees and leaves, sunsets beside the sea, birds flying overhead, rolling streams, mountains, fish and coral, sheep and horses, and lots and lots of flowers — from daffodils to dogwoods". Amidst the music and the scenes of nature, Roth remembers the world as it once was, and peacefully takes his last breath.
In the film, police detective Thorn is a "prophet of doom" who learns of the "most horrifying results" of the overpopulation and environmental disaster. In addition to being a prophet, "Thorn is a pioneer, a tragic hero willing to speak up and resist homogenizing forces as an individual." In the film's depiction of corporate corruption and police complicity in the cover-up, Thorn's "morality transcends all those around him" as he becomes the "sole voice of reason" as he "stands alone". After Thorn learns of the use of human bodies to make food, his main concern is with the future implications: that the Soylent food company will eventually "raise humans like cattle." After Thorn is shot by Soylent Corporation gunmen, he appears to be mortally wounded, and so his warnings about the horrors he witnessed in the Soylent plant "seem to be his last", making him a classic "tragic hero."
In the film, Thorn's assistant Roth "serves as the reminder of better times." The aged researcher, a former professor, tells Thorn about the past, when "'real' food was plentiful and the natural environment thrived." Real food is a symbol of the past; as a result, when Thorn investigates the murder of Simonson, a Soylent board of directors member, Thorn takes "lettuce, tomatoes, apples, celery, onions, and even beef" from the wealthy man's luxury apartment. These rare and expensive luxuries were out of reach for all but the most powerful members of the society. When Thorn shows Roth the red filet of beef, Roth weeps at his realization of how much society has lost due to pollution and overpopulation. Now that most humans subsist on processed ration wafers, when Roth sees the "real" food, he asks “How did we come to this?”
After Sol discovers that Soylent wafers are made from human flesh, and decides to end the horror by signing up for government-assisted euthanasia, Sol is shown a montage of beautiful natural images in the euthanasia chamber: flowers, deer, mountains, and rivers. When Thorn rushes to the euthanasia clinic to try to stop Sol, he is too late to save his friend, but he is able to share Sol's final moments. In Sol's last minutes alive, "Thorn shares Sol’s nostalgic moment" as Sol asks “Can you see it?” and “Isn’t it beautiful?”, which helps Thorn to realize "what he and the rest of the world has lost."
Scfi.com film reviewer Tamara Hladik calls the film a “basic, cautionary tale of what could become of humanity physically and spiritually" if humans do not take care of the planet. She points out that “[t]here is little in this film that has not been seen” in other films, such as the film's depiction of “faceless, oppressive crowds; sheep mentality; the corrosion of the soul, of imagination, [and] of collective memory.” While she notes that the director has a "tendency...to overuse Charlton Heston” in scenes depicting this beleaguered, futuristic dystopia, she admits that the film “often succeeds despite [the missteps of] its director".
Hladik argues that the “most powerful moments do not belong to Heston['s]" police detective character Thorn, who she calls a “dubious, ambiguous hero”. Instead, she claims that Robinson’s characterization of the aged police researcher Sol Roth are the “most moving passages,” which give the film “conscience and soul.” She acknowledges that the film has “imagery [that] is powerful and haunting”, such as the scenes in which riot control vehicles scoop up protesters with metal shovels, as if they were garbage. Overall, though, she states that “[m]ostly, though, the profundity of humanity's transformation [in the film] is dealt with in less than a masterful manner.”
Reviewer Jeremiah Kipp claims that the plot of the film "trudges along" as the Heston's police detective character pursues the murder investigation in a meandering fashion.
The animated series South Park parodied the "Going Home" euthanasia scene of Soylent Green in season 4, episode 414 "Helen Keller! The Musical" by depicting turkeys in a "humane slaughter house." Before the turkeys are killed, the lights are dimmed and calming visions of nature are shown, set to light classical music. This scene is also parodied by The Simpsons when grandpa Abe Simpson goes to commit suicide at a euthanasia clinic. He is plugged into a "DiePod" and requests his video to be of cops beating hippies and his music to be Glenn Miller.
In 1997, the "Space" episode of NewsRadio, set in the future as a science fiction spoof, included a newscast which is purportedly sponsored by Soylent Green. The 1999 dark comedy, mockumentary format movie Drop Dead Gorgeous depicts a beauty pageant competitor using an excerpt from the film as a dramatic monologue. The catchphrase was also used in the Millennium TV series, in a 2001 episode of Disney's Lizzie McGuire, and in an Australian comedy/variety series Micallef Tonight. The film was also referenced in the American animated series Harvey Birdman, a North American animated television series comedy which revolves around the activity of a law firm staffed mainly by superheroes and characters from 1960s-era Hanna-Barbera cartoons. The series uses a surrealist style of comedy and it makes substantial use of pop culture references.
Several rock songs refer to the movie. Rudy Ratzinger of the German electro-industrial band Wumpscut created a song in 1993 named after the movie which contains audio samples from the German-dubbed version. In the 2000s, folk rock singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton, whose quirky satirical songs often refer to science fiction and technology, penned a song entitled "Chiron Beta Prime" which refers to the film.
Soylent Communications, the owner of the rotten.com website took its name from the fictional company of this film. Rotten.com is a US-hosted shock site devoted to morbid curiosities, primarily pictures of gruesome fatalities, deformities, autopsy or forensic photographs, depictions of perverse sex acts, and historical curios that are disturbing or misanthropic in nature.