Silent Running (1972 USA)

This was one of five movies made by Universal “on the cheap”, (a millions bucks each) after the phenomenal success of the low-budget Easy Rider. Of the five, Silent Running was a modest success, though it suffered from lack of publicity, which was an erroneous decision made by Universal. Special effects wizard, Douglas Trumbull, was given the director’s reins. Silent Running is one of those lonely sci-fi films made in the spirit of 2001: A Space Odyssey where it’s all about astronauts being isolated and becoming gradually unhinged in deep space. What makes this one unique is the ecological theme, which is still timely today.

The cinematography, especially the opening titles, is nothing short of amazing; they even made Joan Baez sing something for the opening theme. The action: Earth has managed to amputate its environment. No flora, no fauna but humans living inside as the original earth has been rendered all but uninhabitable by pollution. All the plants, animals, all the wildlife has been moved off-planet to geodesic domes in space (as to “why put the stuff into space?” there’s no objective reason that really holds water to a serious sci-fi buff, but it does set up the resolution of the plot). Bruce Dern plays the last dedicated conservationist, on one of the spacecraft carrying the wildlife. He is an idealistic nature lover named Freeman Lowell.

When the crew receives an order to destroy the preserve and return to commercial service, Lowell sets out to protect his forests by any means necessary. As a result, he ends up being the only human at the station after it is presumed destroyed and begins a project of teaching his small robot servants to help him to look after the forest. The idyll is hard to maintain, however. (As was my complete interest because I sensed a plodding quality to the film – especially since Dern, despite his uniquely sad plight, is the only human being on screen most of the time.) The story’s most endearing elements are the two almost-human ‘drones’, Huey and Dewey, which contribute to some amusing and even touching interplay with Dern; they were an obvious influence on C-3P0 and R2-D2 from from the Star Wars films.

Unfortunately, what the film wins in visuals, it loses in writing. The wistful wandering in the woods to Joan Baez songs comes across as as laughably naive. And Lowell’s idealism, contrasted to the indifference of the other crew members, doesn’t seem too subtle now, if it ever did. Even though Lowell spends most of the time completely alone with the mute drones, or a radio voice, the film doesn’t get much out of the delicious situation. I hoped there would be more focus on the effect of stress, loneliness and guilt on Lowell’s mind. But as the forest always stays number one for him, there’s not much psychological tension present in the story. At least it is presented poorly. This ultimately reduces the film to a cute technology show with an environmental message, when it had potential for being a much more thought-provoking sci-fi tale. Even so, the visual style and the tragic ending are easily enough to make Silent Running a very watchable movie; it is also interesting as a product of its socially aware time.

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