There are two main categories of speculative science fiction. You can imagine a future where technology has improved and the world has become a space-age utopia, but where’s the fun in that?
Sci-fi films have the potential to imagine a future far darker and nastier than the present. That’s the direction many of the most memorable sci-fi films in history have taken. Classics of the genre like Blade Runner, Snowpiercer, Children of Men, and even The Lobster all imagine a world made worse by technology and the march of time.
But few sci-fi films are quite as dark as Soylent Green, the 1973 dystopian thriller starring Charlton Heston. It’s available to stream now on HBO Max. Here’s why you need to add it to your watchlist, while you still can.
Directed by Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage), Soylent Green imagines a world where pollution, poverty, overpopulation, and depleted resources have wreaked havoc upon society. Set in the distant future of 2022, the film depicts a time when only the rich live well. Their apartments come with concubines referred to as “furniture,” while depressed citizens have begun seeking out government-assisted suicide to escape the terrors of reality.
It’s a vision of the future that’s hard to forget.
Enter: Charlton Heston’s NYPD detective Frank Thorn. Soylent Green follows Thorn as he investigates the murder of William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotten), one of the wealthy board members of Soylent Industries, a corporation that has amassed huge amounts of power by selling processed wafers called “Soylent Red” and “Soylent Yellow” to the public. When the film begins, the company has begun to roll out its most flavorful wafer yet, a new variation known as — you guessed it — “Soylent Green.”
Soylent Industries claims that the new wafer is made from ocean plankton, but as Thorn begins to uncover the details surrounding Simonson’s death, it becomes clear the company may be withholding more information than it’s letting on. The ultimate resolution of the mystery, while undeniably stomach-churning and appalling, fits perfectly with Soylent Green’s overwhelmingly nihilistic view of the future.
To say much more about the actual plot of Soylent Green would be to lessen the impact of its climactic twists and turns (though there’s a chance Futurama already spoiled the ending for you). But it should be said that all of the beats in the film’s last act essentially work to further drive home its themes, which touch on the dangers of global warming and the tendencies of powerful corporations to turn everyday people into nothing more than livestock for their own nefarious machinations.
The film is elevated by the performances of Heston as Thorn and Edward G. Robinson (in his final film role) as Sol Roth, Thorn’s older roommate who longs to see society return to the world it was before society’s collapse. Heston brings a truly inspiring level of dedication to a role that might otherwise have been forgettable, and it’s difficult to imagine any other actor delivering Thorn’s ridiculously ludicrous final line with quite as much gusto as Heston does.
All of this stands without even getting too far into Soylent Green’s final moments, which are so absurd and horrifying, that they need to be seen to truly be believed.
Soylent Green is available to stream now on HBO Max.