There is a tendency for less enlightened film viewers to classify old motion pictures as “dated” due to superficialities such as quaint anachronisms present in the dialogue (“Groovy, daddy-o!”), wardrobe choices that haven’t been fashionable for decades (turtlenecks and bell bottoms, to name just two), archaic production design (loud wallpaper, mirror balls), right down to hairstyles that are nowadays considered offensive (seemingly, anything prior to the 1980s).
When I think about the year 1973, in film, the first two works that spring to mind are Soylent Green and Westworld. And both films just so happen to be right up there with my all-time favourite motion pictures. Even though less perceptive types ridicule these two futuristic science fiction thrillers for being “dated” – due to the aforementioned though insubstantial reasons – the reality is that Soylent Green and Westworld are more relevant to what’s happening right now than whatever short-life noisy blockbuster you watched yesterday.
Granted, the visions of the future as depicted in Soylent Green and Westworld look very much like … well, it’s all very similar to 1973 – albeit with a few genuinely futuristic trimmings here and there. Still, one of the reasons why I enjoy watching 1970s science fiction is because it’s so obvious when the films were produced, just from looking at them. However, the primary reason I’m so infatuated with these two films is the ideas behind them. Yes, these films are brilliant pieces of entertainment, but they also happen to be about something. They have imagination, they make me think; and I never tire of watching and thinking about them.
Soylent Green depicts New York City in the year 2022. The population of the Big Apple has swollen to more than forty million inhabitants. Organic wholefoods (in addition to water and fossil fuels) are scarce, and much of the (mostly impoverished) population depends on a line of highly processed foodstuffs for their nutritional requirements: Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow, and the new (and by the looks of things, extremely popular) Soylent Green. In scenes that resemble a Soviet Russian breadline, the teeming masses crowd the streets, desperate for Soylent Green.
But what is the secret of Soylent Green?
Somebody knows, and others know that certain somebody can no longer be trusted to keep the secret, leading to an assassination, followed by an investigation from hard-nosed detective Frank Thorn, played by Charlton Heston (and let’s face it, Chuck was as hard-nosed as they came). Assisted by his police-issued “human book” and housemate, Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson, in his silver screen swansong), Thorn attempts to solve the murder case, but what he shall discover is something so horrifying…well, you’ll just have to find out for yourself!
Soylent Green opens with a wonderful montage showing North America from its earliest days of European colonialism, following through to the various ages of technological advancement, humankind’s encroachment upon the natural world, and finally dropping us in the midst of its hellish illustration of the year 2022. The film is a scathing indictment of capitalism, depicting New York City as being, for the most part, a third-world country, as the so-called middle class masses have been obliterated, creating an insurmountable abyss separating the impoverished millions from the wealthy few. Perhaps Soylent Green was a little hasty in its prognostication of the breakdown of the capitalist system and the levels of poverty created by it, at least as far as New York City is concerned – perhaps the film should have been set in Detroit – but, give it time…the century is yet young.
Just as Soylent Green doesn’t hold much hope for the future of capitalism, nor does it paint a cheerful picture of the coming years if you happen to be female. The women in Soylent Green come in two types: the miserable wretch who stands alongside the menfolk, enduring insufferable levels of smog and heat to procure her meagre rations of highly processed food, and…
Furniture: this is the dehumanising description applied to the glamorous femmes who are thrown into the bargain when a well-to-do male purchases an exclusive apartment in the world of Soylent Green. To put it plainly, the women in the film are either beggars or prostitutes. And for all of the noise made about the ostensible emancipation of women in modern society, it only takes a stroll down Chapel Street to see that above all else, the female of the species is still prized as decoration, an artifact – or a piece of the furniture – for male consumption. Superficially, things might be different, but in essence, it is my opinion that little if anything has changed for women the since the days of Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre.
Aside from examining the implosion of capitalism and the subjugation of women, the film asks us to consider the ecological question: whether Mother Earth can survive our present exploitation of her resources. It never rains in the perpetually heat-stricken world of Soylent Green, and if it did, it would probably rain acid. Looking at the world today, Society encourages the consumer to strive for the most expensive clothes, the fanciest motor vehicles, all the cosmetics we can cram into an overnight case, yet we happily accept food (a necessity) of the most lowly variety – which is to say, many of us consume garbage as a dietary staple. The present-day Much Making of Things will mean that in the future, third-rate food shall no longer be a lazy option, but the only option, for millions of economically disenfranchised persons, in a world of depleted natural resources. But will we care? Even in the world as it is today, we are taught to consider a luxury motor vehicle or a pair of designer shoes as a higher priority than the air we breathe and the food we eat, so how different shall it be in the future?
Soylent Green, far from being a dated motion picture, is a film fit for our time.
The same can be said for Westworld, a science fiction techno-thriller about an ultra-sophisticated amusement park for adults. James Brolin and Richard Benjamin appear as two vacationers who visit the eponymous amusement park, populated with robotic hosts, to indulge in their wildest Wild West fantasies. In sharp contrast to Soylent Green, the future prophesied in Westworld seems idyllic; after all, who would complain about a world where for one thousand dollars a day, one can indulge in the fantastic computerised virtual reality of the Old West, complete with (harmless-to-humans) gunslingers and barroom brawls? Alas, to realise such a world, an overwhelming dependence upon technology would be required and, naturally, since human beings are not perfect, it stands to reason that nothing we create could be truly infallible – especially when dealing with robots designed to mimic the actions of humans in every possible way. And, when you arm robotic gunslingers with live firearms, you’re simply asking for trouble – especially when one of them happens to be made in the likeness of Yul Brynner (a most clever piece of casting that heightens the film’s sense of authenticity. Rather than watching Yul Brynner as a robot, we are given the feeling that it’s a robot deliberately constructed to resemble one of the iconic Brynner’s gunslinger film characters. In fact, the actor wore the same outfit he sported in the 1960 western The Magnificent Seven.
Again, what we have in Westworld (as in Soylent Green), is a society paying the price for its hedonism, albeit on a much smaller scale. So often we are given cause to believe that we cannot do without modern technology but, as we see in Westworld, technology can certainly do without us: the machine becomes the master. Humanity is destroyed by the things it creates – could any message contained within a science fiction film be closer to the truth?
Westworld is often noted as the first feature film to utilise digital technology (not to mention the first sci-fi western feature), but unlike countless science fiction movies of today, writer-director Michael Crichton’s classic employs digital visual effects sparingly. That is to say, they are in service of the film and cleverly heighten tension in the movie, instead of being mere Oscar-bait for a film that would otherwise not be considered for any gongs from the Academy. Along with its cutting edge pixel technology, one must admire the fabulous work from Fred Karlin, the film’s composer. Is there such a thing as Wild West music from the future? Fred Karlin shows us how it’s done. It just so happens to be one of my favourite motion picture soundtracks.
In addition to being considered a splendidly-matched science fiction double feature, the pairing of Soylent Green with Westworld can also be viewed as a Dick Van Patten double – see if you can spot the Eight Is Enough (1977-1981) actor as he makes a cameo appearance in each film!
Though both films might looked dated on the surface – especially to the eyes of children raised on the noisy, ultra-glossy science fiction monstrosities of today – but, if you take a closer look, you’ll see that these film don’t provide gratuitous special effects or boisterous soundtracks. Instead, they boast imagination and relevance to the world of today, not to mention some rather fine acting (of the “acting without acting” variety) and genuinely tense drama. They are films that, to this film fanatic, simply get better with age.
Written by Mark Vanselow for The Astor Theatre.