Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1972)

by Douglas Buck October 31, 2019 4 minutes (933 words) HD Cineplex Odeon Quartier, Festival of Nouveau Cinema/’Films for the Planet’ section

Botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) wiles away the time in a massive space freighter’s two enormous greenhouse domes tending to the very last remaining of Earth’s plant life, constantly annoying his fellow three astronauts, who remain steadfastly indifferent to his passionate pining for a day when all of the flora (and the bunny rabbits and other life teeming within it) will be returned to re-forest the planet… until the orders arrive for the crew to destroy the domes and return the freighter to commercial service and reveals how far the distraught Lowell, with the aid of the three drones on board he nicknames Huey, Dewey and Louie, is willing to go to keep his dream alive…

What a wonderfully daring time in cinema those 70’s were, with the studio execs completely confused and feeling out of touch, handing over the keys for almost an entire decade to all those youthful upstart socially conscious filmmakers, leading to wonderful progressive minded oddities like this low key yet heady Silent Running, the type of philosophically minded sci-fi movie that would come crashing to an end with the arrival of the more-infantile minded, low-brow blockbuster space adventure Star Wars (that would also signal the beginning of the end of the entire beautiful auteur Hollywood period).

No specific reason is ever given for why the Earth has lost all of its plant life, but with the imposing industrial freighter plastered with American Airlines billboards and named Valley Forge, after an actual military warship, the implications of the ever-present corporate/military complex having overruled the planet (and likely destroyed the natural world) is loud and clear, and, heck, more prescient than ever. It’s tremendously amusing whenever a large corporation gives their name to a movie with seemingly little understanding of how subversively condemning the film’s attitude is toward its existence (except when I consider that perhaps they’re so big and arrogantly powerful they just don’t care).

Dern’s wild-eyed and slightly crazed (is there any other kind of Dern character, especially at that time? Well, perhaps ‘fully crazed’ ones) ecologist is the hero and the focus of our sympathy; and what’s stunningly admirable about this is he’s basically an environmental terrorist; an idealist going so far as to literally kill to preserve the natural order (even if those who must die aren’t ‘bad’, just followers, and therefore enablers, of a destructive system)… Lowell is shown to suffer a kind of PTSD for what he’s done (shown as flashes of images he gets hit with now and then), but it’s clear the film quietly admires his position, and sees any suffering he feels for what he’s done as something necessary.

The dialogue and ideas centering around Lowell’s frustrations, shown early in the film, at his fellow astronauts’ constant comfort in the fact that poverty and disease have almost been entirely eradicated on Earth (though there is a question on whether that isn’t propaganda sold to them that they are simply regurgitating) and open contempt for his impassioned pleas for any of them to recognize how the cost has been the eradication of natural beauty from the planet, is the philosophical fodder for great speculative science fiction, the type nowhere near enough of in modern Hollywood cinema, at a time when the planet is being choked to death, with mass extinction looming (if nuclear catastrophe doesn’t get their first).

Coming so close after the late 60’s, with its idealistic view and a repeating on-the-nose song by none other than protest-hero and folk singer Joan Baez, there’s a hippie-dippie feel to the film that dates it a bit, but in the most engaging way (what I find interesting is how many of the younger generation express disdain for ‘hippies’, further proof how successful the establishment elites have been at co-opting and propagandizing them into holding contempt for a previous Flower Power generation that, flaws and all, managed through sheer will and effort to not only help transform the social landscape in all sorts of progressive ways, but to have a not insubstantial role in forcing the imperialist US to get the f… out of Vietnam – alas, however, over time, the elites always win).

The practical effects are impressive all around. Apparently the setting of the freighters near to Saturn and its rings was something that special effects wunderkind Trumbull had originally created for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey that ended up not being ready in time (or some such thing), leaving it available for Trumbull to use (and use well) for this, his (impressive) directorial debut.

The three robots are cute creations, with each reminding me of a 35mm film cannister with some electronic doodads stuck to it and a pair of hydraulic legs, yet, with their trudging gait, slight ‘head’ movements and harmless appearance somehow managing to engender some genuine poignancy (especially as a few have tragic fates). They’re a bit like R2D2, only with the slightly unsettling component that it’s obvious, based upon the physical shape of the robot body, that they were played by performers amputated just below the torso.

Silent Running is close to a masterpiece and more important than ever; it’s a philosophical quasi-meditative sci-fi film, a eulogy for the lost idealist desperately fighting, willing to give his own life, to save the planet and preserve its beauty (the kind of hippie we could have used more of over the last thirty years)… released by a Hollywood studio, no less. Ah, those 70’s.

Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1972)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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