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, 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, 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 absent the time cops. And of course 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 (he’s 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 provided the containers when 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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10 thoughts on “Silent Running (1972)

  1. Tom Moody

    I saw this as an adult but watched it (on TV) with family members who were kids at the time. The reactions were very emotional — to the loss of Huey’s mobility, to the sacrifice of the forest, to the image of Dewey tending the last dome for all eternity. Seen through a child’s eyes it’s a sad movie, and that’s how it affects me, too, despite ’80s cynicism about hippies. Last I checked we are still killing off all the forests. The yahoos, as they eat their dinners of prefab food, are still laughing at the dude who grows and eats his own canteloupes. This *should* make us sad.
    Contributing to the film’s emotional impact (if it affects you that way) is Peter Schickele’s lovely and original music score. It’s surprising to see this purveyor of witty classical music send-ups in the credits — he only did a handful of films. If you can filter out the late-’60s affectations of Joan Baez and just listen to the song she’s singing, it’s quite poignant. Schickele responded in his own way to the Americana theme you mentioned, with echoes of Copland’s Appalachian Spring in the strings and piano. The melancholy, lapidary theme “Tending to Huey” plays only twice — in the twinned scenes of the drones repairing Lowell’s leg and Lowell attempting to repair Huey’s leg. The theme makes me sad just hearing it, with no accompanying images.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      Thanks for the thoughts on the score Tom. It does match the tone on the film on various levels. Your comment made me think too of Neil Young’s melancholy “After the Gold Rush” with the final verse about the silver spaceship “flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home in the sun.”

      Reply
  2. Tom Moody

    Yes, it’s a very Neil movie! Another thought: regarding Lowell “getting away with murder.” This is true insofar as he remains our POV character for the rest of the film, but we, the audience, don’t forget what’s he done and I don’t think he does either. I see his suicide at the end as an act of guilt (that he’s been carrying since the killings) and avoiding the US justice he knows is coming. The explosion is an act of atonement and a diversion, while the rest of the forest slips away into the long night. What’s different about a ’70s movie versus a post-Reagan ’80s movie is the expectation that an audience can handle the complexity of a “tainted” character. Eventually audiences (or studio execs) couldn’t stand it anymore and opted for Tom Cruise.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yes, the moral complexity of the ’70s didn’t last. It was around the same time that movie audiences got a lot younger too, and I think Hollywood realized that it was young people who were going to keep coming back to see the big blockbusters over and over again. That type of filmmaking was very much geared toward a black-and-white universe, us vs. the monsters, the good vs. the dark side of the force, etc. I mean, that had always been there, but it led to the situation today where serious critics talk about the moral profundity and political complexity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

      I just finished writing up my notes on Michael Bay’s 13 Hours (don’t know when I’ll get around to posting them) and it’s another example of how straitened the moral and political vision of the mainstream has become. Whatever your personal politics are, it’s hard to miss how the film only speaks the language of videogames (Call of Duty), comic books (the hero has a Punisher symbol on his flak jacket), and zombie films. That’s a much narrower and I think greatly reduced way of dealing with a subject that would have been seen as far more complicated right after Vietnam.

      Reply
  3. Tom Moody

    I can’t believe anyone thought we needed a Benghazi movie, after all the huffing, puffing and Huffington-Posting on that topic. A completely unstraightforward story that somehow needed to be straightened (i.e.,made simplistic). I look forward to your notes.
    The line that drove me crazy was Eric Bana in Black Hawk Down: “When I go home people’ll ask me, ‘Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?’ You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.”
    Yep, no need to understand the politics when there’s male bonding to be attended to.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yeah, Hollywood really ran with that whole band of brothers theme after Saving Private Ryan and 9/11. I think there’s certainly a place for it, as it really is a big part of military life, but when you invoke it too much it’s hard to stop from slipping into jingoism, cliché, and sentimentality. I don’t know if you’ve seen 13 Hours, but if the male bonding angle in Black Hawk Down didn’t appeal to you then I think you’ll want to stay away from the Michael Bay version. Plus Black Hawk Down is a better movie. I tend to post my notes on certain movies in clumps so I was going to do Black Hawk Down, American Sniper and 13 Hours sometime together. But I’ve got a big backlog of stuff to get to before then.

      Reply
  4. Tom Moody

    This business of skirting over the politics of a real-world event so it can be milked for its thrill value is a terrible trend and a good topic for film criticism. I liked Black Hawk for its “anatomy of a disaster” theme and it led me to read Mark Bowden’s book for the bigger picture. I’ve avoided recent propaganda outings such as Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper — one reason I read your blog is your willingness to cover movies of this sort, sparing me an elevation in blood pressure.

    Reply
  5. Tom Moody

    The Filmstruck blog [David Kalat on January 31, 2015] has a sarcastic review of Silent Running where I learned a couple of factoids:
    “But wait… why did the producers hire a musical satirist to write the score to a serious SF drama? Well, it seems a few years back, Baez’ producers were ginning up a Joan Baez Christmas album and wanted her to sing one in the style of an 18th century carol, and based on P.D.Q. Bach’s expert musical parodies figured he was the guy to fake an old timey carol. The makers of Silent Running saw his name on the album credits and didn’t do any follow-up research before signing him on.”
    As for plants needing light:
    “Of course, we know it’s because this is a relic of the older script, in which Lowell wasn’t a botanist and didn’t know what he was doing, but how did all the people involved in bringing this to the screen let that slide without quibble?”

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      Thanks Tom, I checked out Kalat’s notes. Interesting stuff, but I’m not sure Bach’s background would have disqualified him from writing a serious score. Didn’t that seem like a bit of a cheap shot? Also, I got the sense that he thought Dern was miscast to play a psycho. Admittedly, most of Dern’s better known crazy parts were still to come, but he’s always seemed a bit nutty on screen to me.

      I still have trouble understanding how, even in the older script where Lowell wasn’t a botanist, he wouldn’t know that plants need light to live. I realize few of us today grew up on farms, but still that amounts to general knowledge on the level of water is wet and fire burns.

      Reply
  6. Tom Moody

    Yes, it was a cheap shot. Some of his commenters took him to task for not appreciating Schickele’s score.
    For a fact-packed review it’s often off the mark. It doesn’t seem to get the Dern character at all. Fortunately another commenter came to the film’s rescue: “I thought it was very clear that the Bruce Dern character had serious mental/emotional problems. I don’t think he was intended to be a flawless hero. At best you felt sorry for him, thanks to Dern’s skill at taking us into a warped character’s psyche.”
    Freeman Lowell may have serious problems (some of which can be attributable to loneliness and isolation) but (as noted above) is certainly not wrong in wanting to protect the forest and questioning the US corporate vision of life. Dern is the perfect actor to walk the edge of sympathy and sanity. Not understanding photosynthesis is a straight-up flub, but I like the movie so much I give it a pass.

    Reply

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