Anyone who’s heard the title of this film more than once knows the two words that come after it, so when I sat down to watch it earlier this week, I was worried that it would be ruined by knowing the secret from the outset. But though the famous reveal is endlessly quotable, it almost seems anticlimactic compared to the horrifying dystopia that precedes it.
The dimly lit (by power generated via exercise bike) apartment Charlton Heston (as a police detective who dresses more like the missing Dockworker Village Person) shares with an old man named Sol seems like a palace compared to how most people apparently live. It’s squalid and small, but at least it contains shelves full of books and there’s room to move around, shave, get dressed. Outside, he has to pick his way over people sleeping on the stairs, so numerous and tightly packed that he can barely find room to step. The world is overpopulated, the streets are teeming with people, and the majority of them are hungry, so they’re reliant on rationing of small food tablets, somewhere in between soda crackers, fig bars, and communion wafers. In Blade Runner real animals are scarce; in Soylent Green it’s real food that’s scarce, so that a tiny jar of strawberry jam or even a leaf of real lettuce seems like the most exotic of delicacies.
But of course there’s still a rich upper class that live in glorious apartments, decorated in 1973’s best idea of what luxury would look like in the future (it works for me, but then I dig the 70s), and often equipped with beautiful concubines who are part of the rental package and referred to disparagingly as “furniture.” And when one of these rich men who seems to know too much is brutally murdered, Thorn (Heston) is determined to solve the murder, kicking off the investigation that eventually leads him to that climactic reveal. Along the way there’s plenty to appreciate in terms of details about how this society works (or doesn’t), with food riots, assisted suicide centers, and a climate of deprivation so drastic that Thorn is sold on an evening of lovemaking with a beautiful woman only when he learns they’ll be able to take a real shower with actual hot water.
It seems as though this type of science fiction film — intelligent, socially relevant, adult — all but disappeared for a decade or two after Star Wars. As much as I loved Star Wars as a kid (and, to a lesser degree, now), I’m not sure it was a good trade.