Silent Running is laughed at far too often than it deserves, but that’s mainly directed towards the pretty awful Joan Baez tunes that pepper the piece and occasionally campy dialogue throughout…
When getting over these speed bumps however, the film actually ends up being an awesomely coherent and thematic brother to the far more lauded and well-known 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s not even a facile analogy either, but one of the fundamental ideas it was based on. Silent Running‘s main creative force, Douglas Trumbull, had a large hand in the creation of the entire of science fiction’s aesthetic. This can’t be denied when you look at it his work, which is on display in such movies as Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Chief among his inspired approach to special effects was his direct involvement in the aforementioned 2001: A Space Odyssey. With his background now quickly covered, it’s interesting that a man of his stature would rebel against 2001: A Space Odyssey, considering it too cold and disconnected from the audience on both a plot and thematic level. Many may agree he had a point but, however you feel, Silent Running was his personal solution to the flaws that he felt undermined Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece regardless.
Following the Valley Forge as it drifts through space, we meet Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) and his three fellow crewmates. Lowell’s main task, and that of the Valley Forge, is to maintain a series of geodesic domes and the life they contain. Within these domes are the very last vestiges of flora, or plant life, from Earth, which is now an industrial nightmare free from vegetation anywhere on its surface. Kept safe by Lowell, all suddenly turns dark when the Valley Forge is ordered to destroy its domes and return to regular commercial service. After initial begrudging acceptance, the greenthumbed Lowell can’t take the idea of such a vicious extinction for long, quickly turning to the murder of his own contemporaries to protect the Valley Forge’s priceless cargo. The film goes on to show our main character, brought to life by a passionate performance from Dern, struggle through a variety of ups and downs as he eventually reprograms the ship’s service drones to act as both helping hands and much needed company. Whether Lowell is able to escape the treacherous orbit of Saturn with his plants intact is too spoilerific to type out, but that’s where you and a copy of Silent Running have to fill in the gaps.
Douglas Trumbull was successful in his intentions to put out a film with more of a heart than 2001: A Space Odyssey. For many, the question of which is the better piece of work has been answered by that with the loudest legacy, but there’s definitely still a Silent Running faithful out there, led in no small part by the BBC’s darling film critic, Mark Kermode. Whether the film is subjectively “better” or not is kind of infantile stone throwing though as, in the end, Silent Running is an enormously enjoyable science fiction classic that should be on the shelves of any fan of imaginary spacefaring and the philosophical questions that come with such a forward thinking genre. It’s sure to stick with you, and the moralities behind the character of Lowell are beautifully cyclical and fascinating to pore over. Even the three waddling service drones bring some humanity to the table, and it’s definitely true that that’s something 2001: A Space Odyssey could have done with a little more of. If you like science fiction and haven’t seen this, you really should take the plunge into what is one of the more unfairly considered works of its generation.
This trailer is simultaneously AWFUL and brilliant, so don’t judge the book by this cover.