Silent Running

Silent Running

There’s a scene early on in Silent Running that nicely encapsulates the vibe the film. The technicians aboard the USS Valley Forge, one of four spaceships orbiting Saturn, are having lunch as they await an imminent radio order from Earth. Three of the spacemen are eating freeze dried cubes of indeterminable nutrition, while a fourth is enjoying a grapefruit he has grown himself in the onboard plantation. The three complain of the smell and cannot believe he is eating something that came from ‘the dirt’ instead of the utilitarian gunk they are chomping on.

This enrages the fourth man, a hippy loner type who goes by the splendid name Freeman Lowell. He points to a wall beyond their table at a photo of an innocent young girl and opines,

“Look on the wall behind you. Look at that little girl’s face. I know you’ve seen it. But you know what she’s never going to be able to see? She’s never going to be able to see the simple wonder of a leaf in her hand. Because there’s not going to be any trees. Now you think about that.”

It turns out, you see that the Earth has been deforested and the very last remnants of our planet’s vegetation are aboard this spaceborne flotilla. Lowell’s outburst obviously puts him at odds with his crew mates, but he manages to overcome what could have been a heavy handed and sanctimonious moment. No one likes being lectured at, after all. Especially by a haughty fanatic, so by not overplaying his hand the writers (Michael Cimino and Stephen Bochco before either hit the big time) keep us on Lowell’s side against the thugs who care nothing for natural beauty.

This sympathy is just as well because the order the crew is waiting for turns out to be one calling for them to destroy all the plants in their care and return to barren Mother Earth. Green-fingered Lowell isn’t having any of that and proceeds to murder his crew mates then points the ship towards deep space. Remarkably you’re still on his side as he sails off into the darkness, blood wet on his hands. These are now the very last of Earth’s forests and someone has to save them.

Silent Running

With no goal other than to remain hidden from the other ships in the space convoy, it looks like it will be a lonely journey for our hero hippy but he does have some company in the form of two delightful drone robots. These Lowell renames and reprograms to keep him company. They help him tend the remaining forest but also pass the time by playing poker and listening to his speechifying. The reprogramming allows for these robot companions to slowly grow as personalities as when during the card games they collude against their human companion. Later, when one of them is injured the other is quite visibly upset. Mostly, however this is not overplayed and in contrast to say, C-3PO the film benefits from them being functional parts of the ship rather than its comic relief.

Silent Running was part of an early experiment run by Ned Tanen at Universal Pictures when he was head of motion pictures. Budgets of no more than $1 million, total control and final cut were given to young upstart film makers, the reasoning being that among all this talent one picture was sure to be a hit. The other movies, if you’re interested were Diary of a Mad Housewife, Taking Off, The Hired Hand, Two-Lane Blacktop, Minnie and Moskowitz, American Graffiti and Denis Hopper’s infamous The Last Picture.

Director Douglas Trumball works well within the mix of fiscal constraint & artistic freedom placed on him by Tanen. The casting of double amputee actors to play the drones is inspired, as is the decision to shoot the film’s interiors within the real USS Valley Forge, a mothballed aircraft carrier then at bay in Long Beach. That his previous job was special effects director on 2001 also guarantees some blistering visuals as the ship traverses the rings of Saturn.

Dated? Well, yes in parts but Bruce Dern’s central performance as Freeman Lowell is terrific and the message is a sage one that applies today as much as when this film was made.

I’m delighted to offer this review as part of the Movie Scientist Blogathon hosted by Christina

Silent Running – directed by Douglas Trumbull (1972)

In Short
A space crew in charge of Earth’s last remaining forests receives an order to destroy them and return home. A bold decision must be made.

Trailer here

Movie Scientist Blogathon