Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Classics Revisited: Silent Running

(1972) Directed by Douglas Trumbull; Written by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino and Steven Bochco; Starring: Bruce Dern, Jesse Vint, Ron Rifkin and Cliff Potts

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“…but you know what else there’s no more of, my friend? There is no more beauty, and there’s no more imagination, and there are no more frontiers left to conquer. And you know why? Only one reason why. One reason why the same attitude that you three guys are giving me right here in this room today, and that is nobody cares.” – Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern)

Few movies have made as much of an impact on me as Silent Running. I was likely no more than five or six when I first watched it on TV, sometime in the early ‘70s. Although it might sound denigrating, I was probably the ideal age to appreciate the film. It’s told from a childlike perspective, in bold strokes, favoring the big picture, with a healthy sense of wonder. Maybe it appealed to me so much (and the science fiction genre by extension) because, from a little kid’s point of view, there’s something empowering about watching depictions of things that are so much larger than the grown-up world.

Silent Running takes place in a future, when the Earth’s forests have been eradicated. Science appears to have solved many of humankind’s woes, such as food, housing and unemployment, but at the expense of the natural world. The only remaining forests exist in domed enclosures on three enormous spaceships, constructed with the hope that they will one day re-seed the planet. All of those hopes are dashed when the project is abruptly canceled, and the ships are ordered back to Earth without their payload in tow. But one dedicated crewmember from the Valley Forge isn’t about to give up without a fight.

Douglas Trumbull originally wrote a treatment for Silent Running while working on the effects team for 2001: A Space Odyssey. A few years later, Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino and Steven Bochco would develop his treatment into a full-fledged screenplay. Shot in just 32 days, and on an incredibly tight budget, the filmmakers relied on their ingenuity to create a convincing space environment. The soon-to-be-scrapped Navy aircraft carrier Valley Forge stood in for its fictional namesake’s interiors, with the exception of the dome interior scenes, which were filmed in an aircraft hangar at Van Nuys Airport, in California.

Considering the highly detailed spaceship designs* and ambitious special effects, it’s easy to forget the film was made for a mere $1.3 million. One of the members of the film crew was a young John Dykstra, who supervised the miniature effects shots, and would go on to make his mark in Star Wars and other effects-laden extravaganzas. In an early scene, which still impresses today, we see Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) staring out of a window, as the camera gradually pulls back to reveal an immense spacecraft. In a later scene, we’re treated to a majestic shot of the Valley Forge drifting by the rings of Saturn. The visuals are so immersive that the viewer could be excused for thinking he or she was looking at the real thing, instead of a model (albeit, a painstakingly crafted 25-foot model), in front of a backdrop of black cardboard with painted stars. Considering the quality of the effects, it’s no surprise that other Universal projects recycled the shots of the distinctive freighter ships with geodesic domes for numerous television shows (Battlestar Galactica, Night Gallery, etc...).

* Fun fact: Trumbull cited the tower from the 1970 Osaka Expo, with its prominent exposed framework, as a primary inspiration for the Valley Forge’s design.

The three bipedal robots (referred in the film as “drones”), comprise another unforgettable visual element, which rivals the optical effects. The boxlike drones, which vaguely resemble ambulatory Polaroid cameras, were performed by bilateral amputees, who walked on their hands.* The performers added a human dimension to the robots, infusing human-like mannerisms, such as an impatiently tapping foot, into inanimate hunks of plastic and metal. In another anthropomorphic touch, the main character names them Huey, Dewey and Louie. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that the robots were the direct ancestors of R2D2 in Star Wars, which Trumbull acknowledges in the DVD commentary. 

* Fun fact: Trumbull stated the movie Freaks (presumably watching Johnny Eck) inspired the idea for the shape and movement of the drones.

Bruce Dern deserves accolades as Valley Forge crewman Freeman Lowell, an outcast among his peers, who tends to the domes with a religious zeal. Instead of playing another one of his stereotypical deranged characters, it’s the world that’s gone crazy – his actions are simply a reaction to the insanity of the situation. When his fellow crewmembers carry out their orders to destroy the domes and head home, he takes it upon himself to preserve the final habitat, at any cost. He’s ultimately driven to an insane act, killing his fellow crewmembers, in order to stop another senseless act. Lowell and his principles are a distillation of ‘60s idealism, standing in opposition to cynicism and apathy. He’s tortured by what he’s done, for an arguably greater cause – I’ll leave it to you to decide if the ends justify the means. 

Some aspects of the film, haven’t worn quite as well. I’m not a big fan of Joan Baez’s music, or her trilling vocals, but it sort of works in the context of the film, with its folksy, post-‘60s hippy vibe. Be forewarned, it will be stuck in your head for days. More problematic, however, is the basic premise. Although the concept and execution of the giant cargo ships is cinematically engaging, I can’t help but question the enormous expenditure of time, money and energy taking the ships out to Saturn, if their ultimate purpose was more Earth-bound. If the goal was to eventually re-seed the Earth, wouldn’t it have made more sense to build the domes back home, rather than in space? In the end, it’s one of those moments where you take a leap of faith with the filmmaker and decide to follow him on his journey, or abandon ship, so to speak. Silent Running is all about polarities, with the good guys and the bad guys readily identified. Lowell’s three shipmates are never fully developed, so it’s difficult to see their actions as anything but callous. They treat him as the resident nut who talks about trees and cantaloupes, and dismiss his attempts to defend the virtues of Earth as it once existed. Their actions sparked outrage in me as a kid. Why are they so glib about destroying these domes populated with cute fluffy bunnies and green trees? Lowell’s reaction, while extreme, appealed to my sense of right and wrong, and seemed completely warranted.

Considering the longevity and impact of his career, it’s disappointing that Douglas Trumbull has only directed two feature films to date. Instead of feature films, he decided to direct his energies to other projects, mostly involving theme parks. It’s an unfortunate loss to the film industry, which could use his unique perspective, told in such earnest tones. Once you get past the folk music and the dubious science in Silent Running, you’ll find themes that remain just as relevant today as in 1972. Our society’s values have shifted, favoring instant gratification over long-term gains, processed foods over natural, and personal comforts over the greater good of the planet. So few science fiction films are about the big ideas, which Trumbull explored. Silent Running is at once a product of its time, and timeless.


  1. Nice write up. I must admit having never seen Silent Running. But it looks like a classic of the genre.

    1. Thank you! I have a lot of affection for this movie, warts and all. If you see it, let me know what you think.