Director: Douglas Trumbull
Writers: Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, and Steven Bochco
Starring: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint, Mark Persons, Cheryl Sparks, Steven Brown, Larry Whisenhunt
The cult classic 1972 sci-fi film Silent Running was the first film directed by Douglas Trumbull, who had previously worked on the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey and would later go on to work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the first Star Trek film, and Blade Runner. Trumbull’s film is a timeless environmental story about the future of humanity. It feels just as relevant now fifty years after the film was first released.
Silent Running was greenlit because of the massively successful Easy Rider from 1969, which had made big money from an incredibly small budget. Universal put forward five films, Silent Running one of them, that would have a budget of around one million dollars, in the hopes that they would go on to make a lot of money in return. At the same time Trumbull was given final cut of the film with next to no studio interference at all.
Bruce Dern stars as Freeman Lowell, a botanist on board of the spaceship Valley Forge. His mission, along with his three crewmates is to maintain forests in biodomes that are attached to the ship, preserving forestry and animals for Earth where plant life is extinct. Wanting the spaceships to be used for commercial use, American Airlines orders the crew to jettison and destroy the domes and bring the ship back to Earth. Lowell sees this as the worst decision possible and goes to extreme lengths to save his favourite dome.
The opening of this film is almost perfect, it doesn’t tell you exactly what’s going on straight out of the gate, instead it lets you get a feel for the world of the film. There are long shots of the exterior of the Valley Forge, with some stunning miniatures that feel the predecessors to Star Wars. The ship is also named after the USS Valley Forge, a decommissioned aircraft carrier where the film was also shot. Slowly we get to know the four crewmembers on the ship, and the interplay between them.
There’s a distance between Freeman Lowell and the others. He wants to preserve nature, eating food that he’s grown himself, while the others don’t see a difference between that and synthetic food. The personality from Earth has been removed, with everything being the same as people just don’t care. When the orders come in, the three others celebrate at going home, while Freeman stays quiet. When the time come to jettison the domes he fights back, killing his crewmates and trying to take the ship out into space where American Airlines won’t follow. The rest of the film is spent in isolation with only three drones for company.
Bruce Dern is really the only character of the film, and his performance is great and subtle. The pure disappointment on his face when the orders come in is haunting, and all the way through the film there are great moments from his committed performance. The only weakness is the exaggerated look of pain on his face, that feels like something out of a parody. There’s also some really weak effects, like the blood and unconvincing fight early on, where the film really shows its age. For the most part the film still looks great.
The drones are also great, with a surprising amount of personality despite not having a face. There’s a great moment where Lowell plays poker with two drones, it’s one of the most captivating moments of the film, the isolation Lowell is feeling and trying to replace human companionship with drones. It mirrors something he says earlier on, that he’s not friends with his crewmates, but he did like them. Lowell spends a long time on the outside, isolated before he’s alone, but there was a small connection that’s completely gone once he kills them.
At its heart the film is about preservation. Lowell will go to extreme lengths to try and save the forestry in the domes, knowing that if they are destroyed then there would be no more plant life again. There’s a great speech that Lowell gives early on to the crewmates, describing the lack of beauty and imagination on Earth now that all plant life is gone. It’s a striking moment that sticks with you. It’s up to you to decide whether he’s right to kill to save the forest, and that’s something Lowell has to reckon with for the rest of the story, with brief flashbacks to his crewmate.
There’s a great sense of isolation in Silent Running and that’s its greatest strength. The film is memorable, with a great central performance. It’s easy to forget about the moments that feel dated with all the great things about it.
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