By the year 2022, overpopulation, pollution, and climate catastrophe have caused food shortages, drought, and homelessness. New York City has a population of 40 million and only the elite can afford decent housing. They live in fortresses with private guards and concubines called furniture that come with the house. NYPD detective Frank Thorn (Charlton Heston) and his elderly friend Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), a professor working as a police analyst, live in a cramped apartment. Sol remembers a world full of animals and real food. Thorn is investigating the murder of the wealthy and influential William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotton) of the Soylent Corporation.
The company provides food for half the world in the form of wafers, presumably made of soy and lentils. There is red and yellow and now Soylent Green, which is touted as more nutritious and made of plankton. Sometimes, though, the supply runs out and there are riots in the streets, forcing the police to shovel up the people with front-end loaders. Aided by Simonson’s furniture girl Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), with whom he is beginning a relationship, Thorn meets Simonson’s father-confessor (Lincoln Kilpatrick), who is himself soon murdered. The governor orders Thorn to wrap up the investigation, but he stubbornly continues. As he is working a riot, he is attacked by the killer of Simonson, but the killer is crushed by a tractor and Thorn does not get to interrogate him.
Sol has two volumes of Soylent Corporation oceanographic reports which Thorn took from Simonson’s apartment. The cops, apparently, are able to appropriate things during their investigations, like steaks from the freezer and Shirl, for instance. The books reveal that the oceans are dying, and Soylent Green cannot be made from plankton. It seems Simonson was about to reveal a deadly secret and was killed to shut him up. Sol is so depressed by his revelations that he seeks assisted dying at a government clinic. Thorn finds his note and rushes to save him but is too late. Before dying, Sol whispers what he has found that was so devastating.
Thorn hides in the truck transporting Sol’s body and is taken to a waste disposal plant, where he discovers human bodies being used to make Soylent Green wafers. He is horrified, but is spotted, escapes, and is followed to the church, where he kills his attackers, but he is seriously wounded in the gun battle. As he is treated by paramedics, he urges the Police Chief to spread the word, and as he is hauled away, he shouts to the crowd, “Soylent Green is people.”
The movie was directed by Richard Fleischer, based on the 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison. Soylent Green is not in the novel, though there are Soylent steaks. It was met with mixed reviews, as SF films usually are, but won the Hugo and Saturn Awards as best SF picture, and the script won the Nebula. This was the last role of Edward G. Robinson, who was terminally ill at the time. The last scene he ever played was his death scene. He was almost deaf during shooting. The meal between Heston and Robinson, which revealed much about their characters, was ad-libbed by the two of them. Heston was one of the few who knew the man was dying, and he brought different wines and cheeses every day for him, and in the end, he announced his death to the cast.
The Chevron Oil Refinery in El Segundo played the Soylent Green manufacturing plant. A contract said that no dialogue could be added or edited from the script, lest it become an action picture, so the big chase and shootout added at the end was silent. This was the final film shot at the MGM back lot and the boarded-up buildings helped create the air of urban decay needed. The red convertible in the film was borrowed from Sharon Stone. Ironically, this early film about the Greenhouse Effect starred Charlton Heston, Chuck Connors, and Joseph Cotton, all staunch Republicans and friends of Ronald Reagan, a major climate-change denier. In the rioting crowds in 2022, many of the people wore facemasks.