Silent Running (1972) / Sci Fi-Drama
MPAA Rated: G, suitable for all audiences (probably PG or PG-13 today for an act of violence)
Running Time: 89 min.
Cast: Bruce Dern, Ron Rifkin, Cliff Potts, Jesse Vint, Joseph Campanella (voice), Roy Engel (voice)
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Screenplay: Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Steven Bochco
Review published November 14, 2005
Silent Running foresees a bleak distant future for Earth, where the only forestation left resides on huge domes affixed to off-world spaceships, providing an optimal environment for a self-sustaining biosphere. Humans tend to the gardens, assisted by robot drones, although most of the men see it just as a paying gig to perform until the company asks them to come home. They get their wish, as the company now wants to use the ships for other endeavors, scrapping the forest project and ordering all of the domes destroyed. This doesn't sit well with idealist and conservationist Freeman Lowell, one of the botanists on board, who refuses to let them destroy the sole remaining dome, over his dead body (or theirs).
The first film directed by Douglas Trumbull (Brainstorm), the special effects maestro that created memorable visions in such movies as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner, features quite a bit of interesting effects of its own, perhaps a bit dated by today's standards (the spaceships look like obvious miniatures) but given the limited budget and schedule Trumbull had to work with, still impressive.
However, this is not a film that is trying to wow you with effects, as underneath, it is a semi-parable about the dangers of our current deforestation of the planet for the sake of industry and profit. It's all very simplistically presented, but given the spirit of the times it was made in (the hippie era), it probably held a more appreciative audience for its message that it does today. Some people might snicker at the naivety of the main themes, and while I can certainly understand to a certain extent, I still think that the mix of politics, morals, and science fiction makes for a compelling drama well worth a look for those that love the genre.
Bruce Dern (Coming Home, The 'burbs) gives us another memorable crackpot performance, except in this one, he is sympathetically portrayed, and even though he commits some acts that most people would constitute as despicable in theory, Dern imbues his character with enough vulnerability to make it work. The drones are controlled by real-life amputees, and they do an admirable job in giving us unique looking robot forms. Trumbull does get a little too cute with them, giving them humanistic behavior that makes little sense, perhaps to make them seem more likeable.
Silent Running is a classic film in the sci-fi genre, although it's one of those films that has little appeal to anyone that typically avoids such fare. There is an environmentalist message that might hold some appeal for those in the movement, although I may upset Joan Baez fans somewhat by stating that the two songs she contributes to the soundtrack are nails-across-the-chalkboard excruciating. Cheesy, silly, and dated, but at the same time, it is also profound, poetic, and uniquely absorbing on a level that few other films have been able to replicate given the same premise. A guilty pleasure, shared by many.
©2005 Vince Leo