Silent Running [DVD]
Screenplay : Deric Washburn & Michael Cimino and Steven Bochco
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 1971
Stars : Bruce Dern (Freeman Lowell), Cliff Potts (John Keenan), Ron Rifkin (Marty Barker), Jesse Vint (Andy Wolf)
Some three decades after its unsuccessful theatrical release and later elevation to cult status, Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running is terribly dated, but still intriguing didactic science fiction. Taking place in the early years of the 21st century, it posits a time in which all plant life on earth has been destroyed, and the only remaining traces of vegetation are in carefully nurtured forest biospheres aboard enormous ships in the depths of space.
Bruce Dern stars as Freeman Lowell, one of four men aboard the spaceship Valley Forge, which maintains four biospheres. Unlike his three shipmates (Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, and Jesse Vint), Lowell is a green-thumb environmentalist, perhaps the last human being who still regards plantlife as something worth cherishing. Unfortunately for this tree-hugger, there are precious few trees left to hug, and when the call comes in from planet earth that the project is a failure and that the biospheres should be jettisoned, Lowell rebels. He kills the other men on his ship, but only manages to salvage one of the biospheres. Pretending that his ship has been fatally damaged, he hopes to disappear into the depths of space and find a suitable planet to foliate with earth's plantlife.
Interestingly enough, all of this takes place within the first half-hour of the film, leaving it with more than an hour of what is effectively Lowell onboard a ship by himself. Well, he's not entirely alone. He has as company a pair of drones, dumpy, squarish, and slightly awkward two-legged robots that make R2-D2 look suave by comparison. Re-christened Huey and Duey, these faceless machines become surrogate humans for Lowell, and the relationship they build together is surprisingly touching, especially given the fact that the drones cannot talk or express much beyond wobbling back and forth and extending their mechanical arms.
Thus, Silent Running is effectively two movies--a character study of the futuristic hippie Lowell and his ability to maintain his sanity by building a genuine friendship with two inexpressive robots and a slightly preachy sci-fi fable about the ultimate cost of pollution and nuclear waste. The screenplay, which is credited to Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, and Steven Bochco, manages to get its green-thumb message across without beating us over the head with it, although many of the early scenes between Lowell and the other men on the ship consist largely of his preaching to them in vain about the wonders of nature and the food it produces (not to mention oxygen, an argument that is strangely absent, making one wonder how people back on earth can breathe anymore). Washburn and Cimino, of course, would go on to co-write Cimino's Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter (1978), while Bochco became one of the most prolific TV producers in the 1980s and '90s, with such shows as Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue to his credit.
When he directed Silent Running, Douglas Trumbull was best known for his innovative work in special effects, especially for his groundbreaking achievements in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the film that made Silent Running and most other "serious" science fiction films possible. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the special effects here are quite impressive, especially given the age of the film and its limited budget of $1 million. Using detailed models and relying almost entirely on in-camera effects using front-screen projection, Trumbull managed to create a believable sense of giant ships cruising through outer space. The interiors, which were shot inside a decommissioned aircraft carrier, have an effectively confined, industrial feel to them, which makes it all the more moving when Lowell steps into one of the glass-domed biospheres and finds himself surrounded by the trees and wildlife.
In the lead role, Bruce Dern is consistently impressive, especially given that this was his first leading role. He appears in virtually every scene, and the entire film hinges on our willingness to accept his decision to kill fellow human beings in order to save plantlife. On paper, it sounds like a ludicrous, indefensible choice, but Dern somehow makes it understandable (it doesn't hurt, of course, that his shipmates are complete jerks).
Although it stumbles at times, and the painfully silly songs by Joan Baez induce more embarrassed giggles than contemplation, Silent Running remains a thought-provoking film. Measured and slow-moving, but undeniably poignant, especially in its final moments, it illustrates the potential for the science-fiction genre to deal with significant social issues in unique and moving ways without losing sight of an underlying sense of humanism.
|Silent Running DVD|
|Languages||English, French, Spanish|
|Distributor||Universal Home Video|
|Release Date||May 21, 2002|
| 1.85:1 (Anamorphic)|
Although the image quality certainly reflects the film's age, the new anamorphic transfer on this disc is a significant improvement over the nonanamorphic transfer available on the 1998 DVD release. The detail level has improved significantly, and the colors, while looking slightly faded at times, are still on the whole bold and well-saturated, especially in the sequences inside the biospheres. A few shots look extremely grainy, but overall the image is pleasantly smooth.
| English, French, and Spanish Dolby 2.0 Monaural |
The original two-channel monaural soundtrack is understandably limited. Where it should be booming (particularly during scenes with nuclear explosions), it has only a slight punch, although it should be noted that it is largely clean of any hiss or distortion.
| Audio commentary by director Douglas Trumbull and actor Bruce Dern |
Recorded in October of 2000, Trumbull and Dern reminisce about the making of the film and the state of Hollywood in the early 1970s, when studio executives were daring (and desperate) enough to allow untested filmmakers like Trumbull to have complete free reign over their films.
The Making of Silent Running documentary
"Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull" featurette
"Douglas Trumbull: Then and Now" featurette
A Conversation With Bruce Dern
Cast & Filmmakers
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick