Movie Review: Silent Running (1972)

For its time a bold, clever cry for Nature __ 8/10

Silent RunningAnnouncer: On this first day of a new century we humbly beg forgiveness and dedicate these last forests of our once beautiful nation to the hope that they will one day return and grace our foul earth. Until that day may God bless these gardens and the brave men who care for them.

Freeman Lowell: It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth… and there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in – you could go to sleep in. And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air… and there were things growing all over the place, not just in some domed enclosures blasted some millions of miles out in to space.

Freeman Lowell: [gesturing toward a picture] 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.

Directed by Douglas Trumbull
Written by Deric Washburn
Written by Michael Cimino
Written by Steven Bochco

Bruce Dern … Freeman Lowell
Cliff Potts … John Keenan
Ron Rifkin … Marty Barker
Jesse Vint … Andy Wolf
Mark Persons … Drone 2 – Huey
Steven Brown … Drone
Cheryl Sparks … Drone 1 – Dewey
Larry Whisenhunt … Drone

Bruce Dern, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s on television, was always the sleazy character who gave the protagonist a hard time. Somehow he got the lead role in this low-budget, highly credentialed science fiction movie in 1972, and it shows him with some potential as a leading man, albeit not in mainstream vehicles. [While we’re discussing movie pedigree, check out the two subordinate writers on the bill: Cimino and Bochco. Highly celebrated in their day, and properly so.]

The literal non-mainstream vehicle for Freeman Lowell (Dern) and his blue-collar forest-ranger astronauts is a Star Wars-sized space vessel, the Valley Forge, carrying six large domes of nature preserves containing an assortment of flora from Earth. We learn immediately from the announcer that conditions there have become inhospitable to plant life, and a fleet of 2,000-meter-long orbiting greenhouse carriers has been commissioned in case terrestrial conditions somehow improve.

Lowell, alone among the four crew members of Valley Forge, is passionately dedicated to his “green” mission. His crewmates, on the other hand, look at their deployment as a simple job for The Man, and only want to return to Synthetic Planet when the one-year term of service is complete. The director dwells on several conversations between Freeman and the others: Freeman is insistent to the point of going over the edge. Astronaut Keenan (Cliff Potts)—whom most viewers will recognize as having a subsequent acting career—tries to understand Lowell more than the other two, but even he has to let go.

The sets are okay, the dialog semi believable, but the movie cannot escape having that low-budget feel. Director Douglas Trumbull actually worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey and was the special effects supervisor on several other big films. Thus, what one appreciates with such underfunded movies are the ideas.[1] While there are some fundamental technical feasibility issues with the film, and some questions on whether real people in the future would have the motivations ascribed to them, Dern and the others give it a good go.

Unavoidably, the focus winds up on Freeman Lowell. For one thing, he’s so different. While his crew mates divert themselves with the many toys aboard Valley Forge, such as speedster electric cars, Lowell is shown in his long locks and a white robe, a Jesus/Noah image talking to the trees and seeing to some the birds and a few furry critters in the Domes. [Complete with a couple of nature-loving tunes sung by Joan Baez.] He eschews human contact, but consents to play poker with his crew mates, at which he excels… one supposes showing mental superiority even in the more conventional roles.

Freeman has “taken ownership” of his special environment. He’s the kind who will reenlist when the one-year term is up, the sort we’ve all run into who would rather work at full-tilt-boogie every night at job he believes in than go home to the wife and kids. It’s as if True Believer is written on Freeman’s forehead and nothing will force him to sacrifice his mission. Even direct orders from his superiors, such as the orders that come “to destroy the orbiting greenhouses and redeploy the freighters to commercial service.” What happens when those orders are received?

Can’t tell ya.

But one does wonder how realistic such orders would be given that it must have cost billions or even trillions of dollars to assemble these orbiting environments. On a technical or cost-analyst perspective, why would the Synthetic Planet Cartel throw out that amount of wealth and potential wealth—the best minds must have judged plant life would become a HUGE wealth-producing asset somewhere down the road. Which starts you to thinking how humanity can survive on Earth without plants in any case. If we had the technology, not to mention the energy, to be able to make an inanimate spaceship out of the world, we’d have the technology to make whatever atmosphere we wanted, plants, scenic vistas, anything you want.

But, hey, it’s fiction, and this is science fiction… a playground for some of the most brilliant human imaginations for centuries. One of the best features of the movie—which anticipates R2D2 in Star Wars—are the three miniature androids. They look like R2D2 or the trash compactor WALL-E, but instead of locomoting in a mechanical way, they waddle on two webbed feet. Extremely cute! They do not speak, but make noises that can be interpreted by Lowell. The other three have no respect for the droids, which seem to be fully sentient and sensitive. Instead the crew throws things at the droids, causes them to mess up, just typical crass lowlife-hillbilly behavior… the kind of behavior that makes you wish you were a droid, not a human.

Though it’s hard for me to judge, Dern is a good enough actor. Probably not as good as might be arranged, but perhaps the exact right peg for the opening of this movie. In general, Dern is a much better fit as an obnoxious or crass person like his crew mates; consider, say, Coming Home. Freeman Lowell does face some moral quandaries as a consequence of his actions, and I’ll give Mr. Dern a thumbs up for his performance.

But it is a movie about an idea: naturalism vs. materialism. And what lengths do we go to to realize our ideals. Definitely worth a Saturday night.

[1] Silent Running reminds one of other lower-budget science fiction movies of that time, such as the Forbin Project (1970) and Logan’s Run (1976), movies that have an underlying libertarian theme and have a small cult following among those who worry about dystopia or central computers going awry.

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