Aphelion Issue 295, Volume 28
June 2024 --
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It was the end of the world as we knew it,
but Charlton Heston didn't mind…

by Daniel C. Smith

Charlton Heston-- one of seventies Hollywood's classic action heroes-- forever endeared himself to sci-fans forever with his riveting performance as Taylor in the original Planet of the Apes. Heston followed up this iconoclastic role with appearances in two other classic SF films of the seventies, Omega Man and Soylent Green. Both of these movies are well worth the viewing time, each of them entertaining and gut-wrenching with fast-paced action and twisting plots that will keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. In each film Heston portrays the classic science fiction protagonist, the anti-hero who refuses to surrender his integrity for the good of 'the system' and fights to regain control of his own destiny (FYI-- many of the classic films being reviewed in Retrograde I re-discovered at the local library-- absolutely free of charge!)

Based on a novel by Harry Harrison, Soylent Green is the story of a hard-boiled detective in New York City of 2022-- population: forty million. In a world that is both overpopulated and polluted beyond redemption, society is at a stand still. The vast majority of people are homeless and unemployed-- with nothing to do but stand in line waiting for food and water rations benevolently provided for them by a partnership between the government and the private sector-- specifically the Soylent Corporation, the epitome of corporate greed and corruption. The Soylent Corporation is as steeped in mystery and Machiavellian maneuvering as any government-- and possibly more powerful. In this now nearly-prophetic vision of the future corporations are backing their financial muscle with political power-- and their international reach makes them loyal only unto themselves. It is across this landscape of poverty and despair Heston's character, Detective Thorn, chases a truth so horrific that its revelation could change… well, you get the idea.

Throughout Thorn's quest for this horrible truth he is buoyed, both emotionally and morally, by Saul Roth, his aging research partner (played by the great Edward G. Robinson in his last-- and his 101st-- film!) who is old enough to remember the world the way it was before the environmental destruction took its final toll-- memories for him so compelling they serve to make his existence in the world of 2022 almost unbearable. A very poignant performance by a true master of the stage and screen, Robinson's appearance in this film alone make it worth the price of admission.

Robinson's character is that small, still voice crying alone in the wilderness, a voice that lived to see its words unheeded. From this perspective, Robinson/Roth adds the voice of an entire generation that was waking up in the seventies to the threat of a gluttonous, consumer-based society to the movie's chorus of viewpoints.

Of course, like all hard-boiled detectives, Thorn steps on a lot of toes (both figuratively and literally) as he climbs over the human beings, both individual and en masse, who stand in his way in his quest for the truth. All the while he walks that tightrope between right and wrong, a sympathetic yet flawed character who just may be humanities last hope; whether or not the price he has to pay for his own ultimate sin is worth it is something you will have to decide for yourself.

Sadly perhaps, Soylent Green remains as relevant today as it was thirty-plus years ago. It's portrayal of a world sinking under the weight of the human race, often drowning in pollution and catastrophes of their own making, presided over by a government seemingly more obedient to wishes of industry than the people make a strong argument for science fiction as the 'literature of prophecy'.

The movie Omega Man, based upon the classic Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend (and of course most recently redone with actor Will Smith under the original title), stars Heston as Colonel Robert Neville, apparently the last 'normal' human being left alive after a biological war between the USSR and China breaks out; Colonel Neville survived the germ-infested holocaust by inoculating himself with an experimental vaccine, and now he lives to battle against the zombie-like creatures of the night, the remnant denizens of what's left of society, the ones who weren't killed by the germs but changed.

Anthony Zerbe (from the original hit TV series Mod Squad!) stars as Matthias, the leader of this cult of photophobic zombies that Neville clashes with nightly, and Rosalind Cash as the leaser of a group of survivors who, for some reason, remain unaffected by the virus. Omega Man is another caustic yet classic tale of catastrophe and of man's inhumanity to man. It is also a gripping and well-done movie.

The difference between the two films I think is that Omega Man leaves room for a little hope, where Soylent Green pushes the limits of fatalism in its view of the future.

Apocalyptic films should be entertaining, but the best of them should also make one think. Soylent Green and Omega Man accomplish both feats and offer compelling performances by some of the seventies best actors.

Check 'em out!

© 2011 Daniel C. Smith

Daniel C. Smith has published over a hundred stories, poems, articles and reviews in venues such as Bare Bone, Tales of the Talisman, The Leading Edge, Star*Line, and Space and Time.

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