SIlent Running (1972) is a classic Sci Fi film and directorial debut for visual effects wiz Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner). It’s set in a future where Earth has become over-populated and polluted and wildlife preservation pods are set up in space in hopes that an answer can be found on how to “save the trees” as it were.
We meet the small crew of one of these ships, Valley Forge, as they go about daily life; playing cards, racing around the cargo bays and corridors in little ATV rovers, and perhaps feeling a bit homesick out in the lonely confines of space. This is not exactly a happy crew, either. Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), the resident tree-hugger, takes more than a friendly ribbing from his three crew mates. In fact, the behavior of his crew is a bit puzzling, I admit. I mean, you get the sense that these guys are hired hands – in it more for the paycheck than the noble cause of preserving some of Mother Nature’s greatest gifts. We see Lowell’s frustration of trying to get the men to understand why eating a fruit he grew himself was better than the processed food they’re eating. A bit preachy? perhaps – this was filmed in the early 70’s after all. But this cautionary tale does offer some insights into a future where everyone has become complacent about climate change and the effects it is having on nature. I believe this is what the crew’s attitude represents, so we suspend some disbelief here and there.
The visual effects are great for the time and build upon Trumbull’s work with Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). SIlent Running clearly lays the inspiration for a more realistic portrayal of spaceship interiors seen in films that come after like Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) and Alien (1979).
So we follow botanist Freeman Lowell as he tends to the plant life and animals in the ships several geodesic domes. The guys have been in space for many years and are eagerly awaiting the next transmission from command that tells them they can come home to Earth. Lowell ever-optimistic that their efforts to restore the planet’s forests will be successful, takes the next bit of news rather badly:
The freighters are to be reclaimed for commercial use, so Command wants them to arm the domes with nuclear devices, jettison them into space, and return home.
Not what Lowell wants to hear.
So the rift is formed between Lowell and crew as they begin preparations to carry out the plan. Lowell has a plan of his own, however: preserve the forests at all costs.
Bruce Dern gives a great multi-layered performance that borders on madness as his character seeks to protect what he holds dear – even resorting to some rather extreme actions. In fact, you wonder if he takes it too far – is he the hero or villain? The movie, while not without flaw, ultimately makes you think – and for that it takes it’s spot among other classic Sci Fi films – it holds a mirror up to society. It is not your usual, action-packed shoot ’em up in space.
One cannot mention this film without mentioning the ship’s service robots Huey, Duey and Louie – their nicknames given by Lowell upon reprogramming them to help him carry out his plan. They’re a great precursor to the droids in the Star Wars series, full of personality despite their lack of voice. And, as Lowell finds himself alone later in the film, it gives him the companionship to keep him going. Much like Wilson did for Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000).
One last word: the opening title sequence. It’s a thing of beauty – a nicely photographed short nature film. Here it is in its entirety. Followed below by the trailer.