Douglas Trumbull’s directorial debut (the ill-fated Brainstorm remains his only other feature) is sometimes cited as showing the humanity that the epic he established himself with (in the capacity of photographic effects supervisor), 2001: A Space Odyssey, lacks. In some respects, Silent Running goes to the opposite extreme of 2001’s sterile environment of emotionally remote astronauts, cloaking itself with overt ecological themes and topical-at-the-time back-to-nature thinking. It is also possessed of a profound melancholy, emphasized by Peter Schickele’s score. The film ends with a small victory, or at least a glimmer of hope, but it’s protagonist is denied any sense of triumph due to the lengths he is willing to go to in order to protect his ideals.
Even the film’s production is a result of an end-of-an-era sensibility. Easy Rider had been a massive, unexpected, success for Columbia and Universal had the bright idea of trying to catch that kind of lightning in a bottle for themselves. They let five young filmmakers go to work on (relatively) low budget films; Silent Running, The Hired Hand, The Last Movie, Taking Off and American Graffiti. The entries from Easy Rider alumni crashed and burned, but Graffiti’s enormous box office makes the one-for-five result seem shrewd.
The earnestness of its message – and some of the narrative devices used to relay it – set against the realism of its characterisation, performances and cinematography represents a strange dichotomy within Silent Running, perhaps a consequence of Trumbull’s relative youth (he was only 30 when it came out).
The titles play over a view of the space greenhouses, which Bruce Dern’s Freeman (yes, Free-man… ) Lowell tends, to the sound of Joan Baez (could you get more ‘60s?). It’s all-but screaming “hippy movie”. The scenario is one of capitalism run riot over any concerns of preservation of the natural world, familiar now but unfamiliar then. Freeman is Adam in his Eden. He is introduced naked, like the first man, and descends from there. We see him go bare-footed in a monastic habit and preache to his colleagues with messianic fervour (later, he will more resemble Cain). But, despite the identification with archetypes, the characters themselves (although we are mostly in the company of Dern) are presented with an eye towards realism of motivation and behaviour that was becoming the norm in this period. Well in advance of Alien, or even Dark Star, the crew are weary and cynical. They want to go home, even one without any greenery left, and look for distractions from the mundanity of their work. Such that they accept instructions to detonate the greenhouses (the motivation for the order being, surprise, profit) without batting an eyelid and become excited about the operation (it is something different, and it means they will return to Earth).
Freeman is the exception, because he has found his salvation in returning to, and attuning with, nature. His impassioned speeches regarding the fate of the Earth and the blindness that has allowed the loss of this world, might come across as overly preachy and trite if not for the impassioned performance of Bruce Dern. He carries much of the film solo, and if he was commonly a bit part villain prior to Silent Running, he was frequently – as here – expected to be on-the-edge in subsequent roles.
In an interview, Dern commented that fans of the film who came up to him were always unable to say when they saw it, except to say they saw it when they were young. I certainly wasn’t that old when I first encountered Silent Running. Relevant to this is that, like 2001, it has a decidedly adult tone despite being considered acceptable for general viewing (both films are U certificate). There’s some bright red ‘70s blood when Dern’s leg gets messed up, but it’s more surprising to see a film that is emotionally so raw, where attitudes and behaviour and mental breakdown are not softened or made palatable, get off so lightly (I’d argue it’s a PG film – but it’s got cute robots!)
Dern kills the first of his crewmates in an altercation as he attempts to prevent the detonation of his geodesic dome. If that wasn’t premeditated, the fashion in which he dispatches the other two definitely is. As he later says, “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to excuse what I did, but I had to do it”. He’s not a character who provides easy audience identification. Freeman is unstable throughout, first because of the threat to his beloved forest, then due to the guilt his actions have caused (there’s even a touch of satire, as his he is told by Earth, “God bless you, Freeman. You’re a hell of an American”).
Freeman’s extreme state of agitation is not what children viewing will remember most (consciously at least), as there are three robot pals who are fun to be with! Who mirror the three crewmen he killed (Freeman shows affection and concern for the drones, something we never see when he addresses his sub-human forest-slaying colleagues). If we don’t get on board with Bruce getting brutal with his fellows, neither do we ever identify with them. Trumbull pulls a Kubrick trick in creating the strongest audience bond with the non-human characters. Indeed, it’s Dern’s empathy for their wellbeing that allows us to relate to him, even as he takes extreme measures. The loss of Louie (and finding of his foot by his friends later) and then the injury of Huey are the most affecting scenes in the film.
It seems harsh of Freeman not to let Huey hobble around with Duey on the drifting greenhouse, requiring the drone to meet his fate, but it is consistent with his viewpoint. Only purity and innocence are allowed to exist in this Eden; Freeman is corrupted in mind and Huey in body. Duey, who is not self-aware (has not eaten of the Tree of Knowledge) may remain, in harmony with the environment.
Trumbull devised the story and his original concept had Lowell encountering aliens, with a less foregrounded environmental message. Three different writers ultimately took passes at it; Steven Bocho, Michael Cimino and Deric Washburn. None of them were able to disguise the rather baffling lack of deductive skills shown by Freeman when the plants start dying. He’d been tending the forests on the Valley Forge for eight years but he doesn’t realise that it’s a lack of sunlight would affect their health? It’s a blundering plot development of the kind that puts one in mind of (more simplistic) kids’ movies, and consequently sticks out like a sore thumb. Yet it serves to support the overarching message of preservation.
The effects work is tremendous, and largely holds up with the passing years. The model shots are as beautiful as you’d expect from the 2001 man, while the shooting of the film in the actual Valley Forge aircraft carrier lends a no-frills austerity to the interiors. Trumbull doesn’t feel the need make everything science-proof (and he doesn’t have the budget), so there’s no explanation for the artificial gravity as there is with Kubrick’s film. And he’s not about to let it get in the way of telling the story (Freeman can communicate with Earth from Saturn in real time). The pre-R2D2/Black Hole/Wall-E robots were performed by amputees and like so much of the design adds verisimilitude.
Silent Running undoubtedly has flaws in terms of plotting, but it’s a film designed to provoke an emotional response rather than an analytical one (there goes this review, then). As such my reaction is much the same now as when I first saw it; a sad and beautiful piece of work that resonates long after it has ended. Even Joan Baez mournful tones contribute to that end, distracting as they are and off-putting to many, ‘60s backwash providing an unlikely complement to the used-future on display.