‘Soylent Green’: When Extras Steal the Scene

Charlton Heston is amazing, but the extras really take the cake in this film.

by Kali Tuttle
Soylent Green

Soylent Green is one of the most iconic dystopian films of the 1970s. Who can forget the twist ending with Charlton Heston’s screaming the truth to the surrounding people?

Of course, Heston is the star of the show. His rugged demeanor and confident swagger endear him to the audience. However, I found myself staring at the extras of this intense film. Their costumes and behavior were reminiscent of medieval peasants. It’s a stark contrast to the futuristic setting of the film. The extras bring an air of despair to the film that our stars alone could not.


Soylent Green contains beautiful costume design. Clothing is bland and dirty for the average citizen of the city, further reinforcing the pitiful state that the future is in. As mentioned, the costumes remind one of a medieval peasant, dirty and desperate for basic needs to sustain themselves and their families.

There is very little color or variety in the costumes worn by the extras. This decision shows how mechanical and dull the future has become because of food shortages and other life-threatening crises. It displays how individuality has been smothered in the poor masses by the government, a byproduct of the awful life that they have created.

Despite how uninteresting their costumes may be, our extras manage to still be interesting characters. Pinched expressions, unenthusiastic gestures, and general malaise are clearly seen in each face in the background. They blend together to prop up the hopeless atmosphere that Soylent Green wants to portray.

Making the Lines Count

Like in any film, most extras in Soylent Green do not have any dialogue. Most of their emotion is expressed through physical movement or facial expressions. However, there are a few with a line or two and they make those lines count. Their performances endure years later in creating the thrilling overtones of this film.

There is a scene where a crowd of people is waiting in line for their food rations. The tension in the air is thick and it’s clear that any small spark of emotion could set it all off. A woman steps into the open and begins complaining loudly about the lack of rations; her frustration is felt and echoed by the entire crowd. This woman’s strong words, boldness, and confidence start a riot that is quelled violently by law enforcement.

Director Richard Fleischer’s decision to have the focus be on the extras rather than on our stars entirely makes this scene so much more intense. By interspersing shots of multiple angry, animated citizens with nervous law enforcement, the audience can feel the riot coming before any violence even begins.

Strength in Numbers

A big part of what makes the extras in Soylent Green stand out so well is the fact that there are so many of them. Every scene feels like it has at least a dozen extras, either milling about in the background or front and center on the screen. It is no wonder to the audience that there is a famine and shortage of resources. In just this one city that Heston’s character lives in, there are just far too many people.

One of my favorite recurring parts of this film is when Heston’s character has to thread his way through sleeping citizens on essentially any building stairs. There is a housing shortage in this dystopia and so the majority of the city ends up sleeping on the street and on apartment stairs, creating a fire marshal’s nightmare. Of course, some of these people end up accidentally stepped on. Yet, for most of them, there is no reaction, other than maybe a grunt or a soft noise. It is this uncaring spirit that truly shows how far gone this dystopia is.

During the climax of the film, Heston’s character runs into a church to escape the government’s agents. This church is packed with hungry, injured, and dying citizens. One can barely take a step without kicking a prone body or smashing some errant fingers. When the camera focuses in on the extras, there is some fear, some anger, but mostly there is nothing. Just numb, blank faces staring back at the screen. These shots are poetry and make this film so powerful.

Secondary Characters

In addition to non-speaking extras, the secondary characters of this film are brilliant. Near the beginning of the film, the mistress of a wealthy man goes to the local grocer for food. This grocer has maybe less than ten lines, none of them necessarily important. However, the way he delivers them is genius. The mistress is happy and her lines are delivered with a sense of joy. The grocer is the complete opposite — his lines are spoken in a monotone, uncaring voice.

His performance only serves to reinforce how despondent this future is. Even when he is presenting the mistress with a prized piece of beef — a rare commodity at this time — there is little to no emotion in his voice. It’s clear that he has lost any sort of passion or zeal for life.

These spectacularly understated performances, combined with Heston’s tenacity and charisma as a main character, make Soylent Green so enthralling so many years later. The extras put their all into their small roles and made big waves in the film.

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and Kali Tuttle @tuttle_kali2.

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Nick Kush April 24, 2023 - 10:48 pm

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Peggy Marie April 24, 2023 - 3:05 pm

this movie was so wild for its time.


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