Review: Silent Running (U) / Directed by: Douglas Trumbull/ Screenplay by: Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Steven Bochco / Starring: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint
'Silent Running' is one of the most famous and influential science-fiction movies of all time and while that influence is still being felt nearly 40 years after its release in recent movies like 'Moon' and 'Wall-E' it generally bears about as much resemblance to a modern sci-fi movie as a chocolate teapot does to the CERN particle accelerator. Whereas yer modern sci-fi blockbuster is crawling with CGI aliens and/or giant robots belting seven bells out of one another, 'Silent Running' is a quiet, mannered, majestic and rather stately piece of work, a science-fiction film made by and for adults rather than by committee and aimed at drooling hormonal teenagers with action figure fixations.
Douglas Trumbull, the 29 year-old director who had created most of the stunning visuals for '2001' just a few years earlier, directed 'Silent Running' and gave the world its first ecologically-aware science-fiction movie, a film aching with the post-Vietnam angst so often associated with early 1970's American cinema, introducing new fears - Earth's resources running down and Mankind abusing Nature's own provender - into the lexicon of things cinema audiences needed to worry about in the new decade. 'Silent Running' is set in the near future aboard a phalanx of giant space greenhouses tended over by a bunch of bored astronauts and the rather more intense and passionate Lowell Freeman (Dern). Apparently there's no more greenery or vegetation back on Earth - which does tend to make you wonder how we're all breathing at all on Earth in the near future - so Freeman (free man - see what they did there?) tends the plants in his great geodesic space domes with an almost religious fervour and he's not particularly pleased when the order comes through that the domes are to be destroyed (for reasons never specified) and the crew recalled. His comrades aren't bothered so Freeman has no option but to kill them and head off into space with only his plants and three cute box-like drone robots - he names them Huey, Duey and Luey - for company.
And that's about it. No space battles, no big-faced alien predators, no time travel paradoxes; 'Silent Running' is about one man's obsession and his belief that, whatever the consequences, he's doing the right thing because he just can't bear to do what he perceives to be the wrong thing. Adrift in space with only his obedient drones for company (and ironically, whatever 'message' the movie has, it's those three waddling drones with which the film is most associated), Freeman's life descends into a routine of plant maintenance, boredom and eventually a sort of terrified frustration when he discovers that his beloved forests are dying despite his best ministrations. Before long the authorities on Earth re-establish contact and a rescue mission is on the way. Realising his rescuers will discover what he's done to preserve the forests Freeman, who deduces that lack of light is killing the forests, separates the dome and sends it out into space, whilst staying aboard the freighter to which the dome was attached and setting nuclear charges. The dome drifts off into space, blazing with life, lovingly maintained by Duey, the last remaining drone.
'Silent Running' clearly isn't an action-packed sci-fi extravaganza because cinema didn't go in for those sorts of movies in the early 1970s so it'd be unfair to criticise it for being something it could never have been. Whilst the pace is admittedly sluggish and the tone resolutely early 1970s hippie (Joan Baez screeches the end title song), it remains a moving and affecting film, well-directed by Trumbull (who never really got the chance to develop his craft in feature films in the following years) and with effective, if never showy, visual effects which still look good today. Cleaned up to within an inch of its life, 'Silent Running' looks the business on Blu-ray and whilst, as a film, it won't be to everyone's taste and it'll certainly frustrate modern movie-goers who are used to films where something actually happens, it's very much the connoisseur’s science-fiction movie, a product of its time and very probably a film to be savoured and admired rather than genuinely enjoyed.
Special features: Commemorative booklet, a surprisingly in-depth contemporary 'making of', interview with Bruce Dern, short featurette on Douglas Trumbull.
'Silent Running' makes a noise on Blu-ray in the UK on 14th November.