Silent Running (1972)

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*. The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 is usually taken as the beginning of the modern environmental movement. In film the same sense of concern took a few more years to really take hold. Science fiction was a natural fit for speculations about where we were heading, both as a species and as an ecology, so a lot of ’70s dystopic SF had an environmental message. Overpopulation, for example, in Soylent Green and Logan’s Run, has led to nightmarish future states where nature has effectively ceased to exist. These films weren’t just speculative fantasies but political.
*. It was, in short, a cinema of concern, quite far removed from pretty much everything that came after. There were many wastelands in the 1980s but little interest was taken in how we got there. Was it peak oil that created the world of the Road Warrior? Global nuclear war? In 12 Monkeys humankind has been driven underground because of a man-made plague, which is safe because there’s not much we can do about it. Just like the zombie apocalypse (virus? radiation from space? a voodoo curse?) is ultimately an Act of God. We just have to deal with it.
*. More recent filmmakers have remained reluctant to invoke environmental messages in their futuristic speculations. I mentioned in my notes on the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still how in that film the whole matter of global climate change and the environment is quickly brushed aside, presumably because the producers just didn’t want to go there.
*. Of course, it was also the ’80s that saw a massive cultural backlash against hippies, immediately turning audiences against Bruce Dern in his monk’s robe, with Joan Baez crooning in the background. Clearly he is a hippie in space.
*. So let’s return to a simpler, more direct, and more honest time, when everyone knew that spaceship Earth was in trouble and some people wanted to do something about it. Nothing shows how far we’ve traveled more than the basic ethical situation faced by Freeman Lowell of the Valley Forge (a “hell of an American,” in case the names didn’t already tell you). In the twenty-first century someone who murders three of his fellow crew members in order to defend the environment would only be seen as a homicidal maniac or eco-terrorist. Now admittedly Lowell isn’t perhaps the sanest fellow here (has Bruce Dern ever seemed entirely sane?), but he’s very far from being an evil crazy guy. Instead, he’s the hero: saddened by what he had to do but not because he feels it was wrong.

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*. On the DVD commentary track Bruce Dern remarks that he’s allowed to get away with murder because it’s done “in the name of science.” Trumbull corrects him and says it was done “in the name of love and passion.” Either way, it would hardly be defensible today.
*. What makes the environmental message so odd is the fact that in Trumbull’s original imagining of the story there was no environmental message. Lowell was just going to head off alone into space and meet up with some aliens. There would be biomes, but they would simply be maintained as a source of food.
*. Silent Running was also a child of the counterculture on a more practical level, being one of a slate of films that were greenlit by Universal in an attempt to cash in on the success of Easy Rider. Young talent were given low budgets (under a million dollars) and creative freedom. Among the other films, according to Dern, were Hopper’s The Last Movie, Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, Miloš Forman’s Taking Off and George Lucas’s American Graffiti.
*. Interesting writing credits: Deric Washburne, “Mike” Cimino, and “Steve” Bochco. However, despite this joint effort (with Trumbull drawing it all together), I think the script is terrible, at least from the scientific perspective. A great deal is also left unexplained. For example, sending the biospheres into space must have been a huge project, so why are they just nuking them now as so much dead weight? The voice of Anderson only says that he “has received no explanation.” Then of course we have botanist Lowell’s “Eureka!” moment when he realizes that plants need sunlight to survive, which is unintentionally hilarious.
*. For what it’s worth, Mark Kermode (a big fan of the film and author of the BFI volume for it) explains Lowell’s brain freeze as the result of his becoming unhinged and not being able to “see the wood for the trees.” Trumbull apparently shares this point of view. I think it’s a very lame excuse made after the fact to paper over a huge boo-boo.
*. It is also inconsistent. The domes already have a lighting system — they would have to, being all the way out to Saturn — so what is Lowell doing that is different by bringing out the lamps?
*. The robots were forms with double amputees inside them and somehow this does lend them humanity, despite their being largely non-anthropomorphic. Dern insisted on playing opposite them with the actors inside the machines even when they weren’t being called on to do anything, rightly sensing the presence they have.

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*. The big problem I have with the robots is that they are so awkward and slow that they seem entirely impractical for any function. Only fast editing makes the surgery scene slightly believable, and from what we see of them walking it must take them hours just to move about the vast spaces of the ship (since we never see them using any form of conveyance).
*. The same slowness and inefficiency dogs the other machines we see as well. Look at how slowly the robotic arm sets up the pool table. Lowell could just put the balls on the table himself in a tenth of the time.
*. Trumbull had worked on the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey and apparently made this film as a more humanistic response to Kubrick (the same impulse behind Tarkovsky’s Solaris, making 2001 quite a reactive influence on the genre). In particular Trumbull didn’t care for the way the humans in 2001 were presented as robotic while the computer was the most “human” personality in the film. If so, this film may have overcompensated, as Lowell becomes the homicidal Hal of the Valley Forge (killing off the crew so as not to jeopardize the ship’s prime mission), and the rest of the crew behave like the jerks in a teen comedy. Meanwhile, the most sympathetic character in the movie is, again, a machine.

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*. Another anti-Kubrick aspect to the movie is its consciously grungy, industrial/functional look, something aided by its being shot on board a decommissioned aircraft carrier.
*. It’s this SF realism that may have been the movie’s biggest influence. It’s hard not to look at that opening scene with the crew sitting around the dinner table talking about how much they hate their job and not imagine the crew of the Nostromo bickering about their shares and other union business at the beginning of Alien.
*. I found the product placement a bit surprising given the movie’s theme. The Valley Forge is an American Airlines space freighter. Did AA really sign off on that? What’s with the Coca-Cola logo on one of the storage crates? As for all the Dow Chemical logos, they supplied the containers as Trumbull suggested it to them as a good PR move seeing as they were getting so much negative publicity with regard to their supplying chemical weapons for use in Vietnam.
*. In itself this isnt a bad little movie. The model work in particular is very good and makes it look much bigger than its budget. Trumbull thought Universal killed any chance of box office by not investing in a promotional campaign, hoping for word of mouth to carry it. I suspect it wouldn’t have done that well anyway, as it’s not that kind of movie. You can only get so far with audiences without a really sympathetic lead, and Dern’s Lowell is a wild-eyed and crazy-haired nutbar while Dewey is a toaster with duck feet.
*. Since its release it has gone on to achieve cult status. It has the low-budget, serendipitous and quirky charm of a cult film. Maybe it’s because I didn’t fall in love with it as a kid that I don’t think as highly of it as many of its biggest fans do. Still, for its originality and all the chances it takes I do respect it a lot.

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