Charlton Heston received a career jolt during the late-Sixties/Seventies when he starred in several high-profile science-fiction epics, including “Planet of the Apes” and The Omega Man.” Over the years, “Soylent Green” has become more timely, where Heston is trapped in a treeless world of smog and environmental pollution. Though the filmmakers don't preach to the audience, the visuals alone provide a visceral sampling of what a polluted planet might look like, and the sad apathy that dominates the lives of everyday people hungry for work, food, and a flat surface upon which to sleep.
Based on the novel “Make Room! Make Room!” by Harry Harrison, the filmmakers altered the original ending, inadvertently creating a memorable finale that also spawned a quotable catch-phrase that endures to this day. (Relax – there's few spoilers in this review in case you haven't seen the film.) World ecology certainly pops up in the feature length commentary by director Richard Fleischer and actress Leigh Taylor-Young – the actress later becoming a bit of an activist herself – and amid several silent pauses, the best material in the track concerns memories of working with actor Edward G. Robinson, who died soon after filming was completed.
The second half of the track offers several touching portraits of the great actor, who was in poor health and was virtually deaf at the time. Fleischer still radiates admiration for the actor's professionalism – ably delivering lines with fellow actors he couldn't hear – and Robinson's work in “Soylent” still ranks as one of his best. The finale is made all the more touching because of the character's fate, casting a mournful tone similar to Brandon Lee's final scenes in “The Crow.”
Fleischer offers some production facts, though a more concise breakdown of his impressions of the experience can be found in his 1993 autobiography. An additional description of novelist Harrison visiting the film set also exists in John Brosnan's excellent book, “Future Tense” (St. Martin's Press, 1978) where Harrison is said to have been largely happy with the changes made for the film version.
Leigh Taylor-Young also addresses her character's politically incorrect position in the dystopian world, where the women's liberation movement has been reduced to an extinct fad, and her character is just a more elegant form of furniture that comes with a ritzy apartment. Not exactly a role worth championing, but the actress and director attempt to explain the character's vital role as a conduit for street cop Heston to explore the corrupt world of the rich, where rice, strawberries, beef and fresh vegetables are rare, black market items.
Two featurettes are included on the DVD. “MGM's Tribute to Edward G. Robinson's 101st Film” (4:50) is rough footage edited into a brief salute to the actor, as the crew breaks to award him a celebratory cake. Robinson gives a brief, eloquent speech, and is subsequently greeted by Warner Bros bigwig Jack L. Warner, and comedian George Burns. A few snippets from the celebrations also appear in “A Look at the World of Soylent Green,” which contains behind-the-scenes footage of director Fleischer arranging the chaos of the street riot, and a fight scene between cop Heston, and a waiting assassin. There's also the film's original trailer, with scenes bracketed by a psychedelic, cascading phrase “What-is-the-secret-of-Soylent-Green?” read aloud with electronic bleeps in the backgound.
The laserdisc included both the trailer and the latter featurette, and remains unique in having an isolated music and effects track (although Fred Myrow's underrated score is available on CD).
A brief essay – really a breakdown of Heston's key sci-fi films – concludes the disc, and it's nice to see the original poster art replicated on the DVD cover, as it's less common than it could be in the video marketing.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan