Silent Running (1972)

silentrI first saw this film back during, oh, Christmas 1978 I think. The BBC was doing a season of sci-fi films over the holiday period, no doubt timely following the runaway success of Star Wars (which we in the UK, outside London at least, didn’t get to see until early that year).  The funny thing is, that movie season of pre-Star Wars sci-fi films would prove more interesting than many of the films that would actually follow Lucas’ space-opera in a wild sci-fi goldrush that has pretty much continued to this day. Other films during that movie season included Dark Star, a few 1950s classics, and Slaughterhouse Five. I remember the latter being somewhat odd, but would love to see it again, only it never seems to get an airing anywhere. But anyway, Silent Running…

Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running is a firm old favourite for many sci-fi fans, particularly those of my generation anyway, and there’s a few reasons for this. First and foremost is because of Douglas Trumbull himself, a guy who’s really something of a genre hero akin to the late Ray Harryhausen. I’m sure Trumbull would be embarrassed at a comment like that, but Trumbull was one of the effects supervisors on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and would later work on the visual effects of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: TMP, and set up the effects work on the seminal Blade Runner before working on the ill-fated production Brainstorm. Silent Running was Trumbull’s directorial debut.

Silent Running is a low budget/high concept movie. You don’t see so much of those any more. Usually its high budget/low concept these days.  In our era of throw-away, bubblegum blockbusters, such movies as Silent Running are a rarity. Highly ambitious in spite of its limited budget, Silent Running shares kinship with other such films of its time as THX:1138 and, more recently, Moon. Films with ideas and perhaps a cautionary message, something to linger in the viewers mind afterwards. Its not by chance that it also dates  from the early 1970s, that last great hurrah of the serious American Film. I believe the story has it that a Studio head, inspired by the success of low-budget/indie hit Easy Rider, gave a number of young promising film-makers a million dollars each to just go and make a movie. Trumbull went away and made Silent Running. It never made any money, so such noble and ambitious gestures as letting film-makers go and make movies was put away as a silly idea, and the Studios got on with other ways of making money and movies.

Sometime in the near (?) future, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is one of four astronauts on board the Valley Forge, a state-of-the-art spaceship which is part of a convoy carrying giant domes containing Earth’s last forests. In a prescient nod to the crew of the Nostromo, his fellow astronauts are bored employees, simply doing what is their job, numb to the importance of their mission. Lowell, however, loves the forests in the domes and sees his task as a noble enterprise, confident that one day they will be able to return the forests to the blighted Earth.

However, the stark truths of budget cuts and political expediency back home results in the mission being cancelled. The astronauts are instructed to jettison and destroy the domes and return to Earth. Lowell snaps and before the last dome on the Valley Forge can be destroyed, he kills his fellow astronauts and breaks away from the rest of the convoy, faking an onboard malfunction.

The remainder of the film is pretty much a character piece, in which Lowell spends his time with his only remaining company, three drones (who prefigure the design of R2 D2) who he renames Huey, Louie and Dewey. Trumbull cleverly adds nuances of character to these drones in how they behave and react to Lowell, and even eliciting some sympathy when one is destroyed and another damaged. Lowell instructs the drones on caring for the forest, and even programs them to play poker. Despondent and clearly feeling guilt at having killed his human crew-mates, Lowell becomes increasingly lethargic and detached, until  he discovers the forest is dying, and has to solve the crisis with the help of the drones.  Inevitably his crime catches up with him when the convoy tracks him down and he has only one course of action left to him in order to save the last remaining forest.

Naive has much of the film may seem today, its ecological theme nonetheless is as relevant now as it was back then, indeed, perhaps even more so. Its production design is clever and impressive, the miniature effects work fine if inevitably somewhat dated (although Trumbull did do one thing Kubrick failed to do in 2001, in bringing Saturn to the screen). When you really think about it the film kind of breaks down- there is no mention of artificial gravity or how the forests are expected to survive cosmic radiation or solar flares, or why the convoy is in deep space rather than Earth or Moon orbit, or the sheer costs of the enterprise. Maybe that is simply because of when the film was made, how innocent we were back then and more sophisticated now. Dern is simply magnificent in his role, but the other human actors come across as stilted, or even wooden, failing to convince. The drones, meanwhile, are simply wonderful and clearly a major inspiration for George Lucas and his team.  But the film is charming nonetheless.

Maybe its the music. I have no idea how well the music score translates away from the film, but Peter Schickele’s folksy score, complete with songs featuring Joan Baez, is incredibly evocative within the movie. Its a score which fits its movie like a glove. Very much of it’s post-sixties/hippy/folk-music era, on the one hand its horribly dated but on the other its just perfect, like another character in the film. I remember seeing a vinyl copy of the soundtrack in town once, many years ago, in a sale, and nearly bought it. Over the years since I have often regretted being too careful with my money, and always frustrated that it has never been released on CD.

On Blu-ray the film looks better than it ever has, but that’s not to say its without its problems. Most of it likely stems from the source, but much of the front projection work really suffers in HD, with wild grain buzzing around in places. Otherwise much of the normal live-action stuff, those shots  minus any of the processing work, look fine. A little soft in places but on the whole detail is otherwise excellent. I guess the film would look better after a full restoration but lets face it, that’s simply never going to happen with such a minor, ‘cult’ film as this.  Its certainly much better than any previous DVD release.

Extras are fine, mostly dating back to the earlier DVD releases, but it does include a great 48-page booklet with rare photographs and artwork, and some text interviews to accompany those on the disc. The Making of Silent Running, a 1972 on-set documentary nearly an hour long, is included, and is a sobering reminder of just how old this film is, and how impressive it is in retrospect.  In all its an excellent package, and even features an isolated music and effects to keep those of us curious about the score happy.

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