With the recent death of Charleton Heston, I took myself to the local library to check out the DVD of the last of his dystopian trilogy that I had not seen, Soylent Green. The other two are The Planet of the Apes, and The Omega Man. These movies have been commented on so much by so many fans and detractors that I don’t have much to add – I just wanted to see Soylent becuase I’d heard about it for so long…yes, I knew the secret before I watched. (Oh, yes, for those of you not in on it, the stuff that everyone eats, Soylent Green, it’s made out of dead people. If this surprises you, you haven’t seen or read much sci-fi.)
Heston was a remarkable actor – extremely limited and generally totally unconvincing, I think – but one of kind. Who else could teeter on the edge of camp in total seriousness? This film plods along as a police procedural after making a great start during the opening sequence simply by using a rapid montage of still photographs of life from 1900 to the date of the story, 2040. In a series of images, we watch the environment and civilization going to hell through pollution and overpopulation – there’s even mention of the Greenhouse Effect. E.G. Robinson, in his last role, does add some emotional heft to the story, but for the most part, it’s like a TV movie.
Omega Man, if you can take it, is even worse. The opening scene of Heston tooling around a depopulated LA in a 70’s gas guzzler is a good one, but that’s about the last cinematic plus this film has to offer. You might find the film of interest for its wacky, but also daring treatment of race – Heston has a sexual affair with a big-afro black woman. No question, that was pushing it a bit in the early 70s.
Jesus came to complete the Old Law, so after being Moses, it makes sense that Heston would be Christ too. He dies for his role in the apocalyptic sins of humanity (he developed the bacillus that kills everyone) but as he destroys with science, he saves with his science, and his blood. The final scene shows him being embraced in a pose taken from hundreds of Depositions, after dieing in a cruciform position and having his side pierced by a lance from the deformed zombies he is constantly battling. The saving serum for humanity is made from his blood itself.
Then there is Apes, which in itself, with its sequels, has become a cultural touchstone of sorts. How strange, I think, that the movie reverses the logic of the Pierre Boule original book. (Boule seems virtually unkown in the Anglophone world, despite his large impact on pop culture in the 60s and 70s.) In that story, Heston’s character escapes from the Ape planet and returns to Earth. When he steps out onto the tarmac, he is greeted by apes. Sledgehammer irony, but pretty good anyway!
Stranger still to think about the other blockbuster adaptation of a Boule novel, the Bridge on the River Kwai. In that novel, a British commander is so proud of and obsessed with the accomplishments of his men who have been forced to build an important bridge for their Japanese captors – the enemy, in case you weren’t around for WWII – that he kills a British commando sent out to destroy the structure. That dark irony was too much for Hollywood, so in the movie, he realizes his ghastly mistake and sets the charges to destroy the bridge himself just in time.