Hailed by some as one of the best science-fiction movies of the 1970s, Silent Running is a quirky, unique movie that conveys a serious ecological message in an unforgettable manner. To be honest, I had never heard of this movie before, but the premise of the film intrigued me, as did the knowledge that a prominent special effects man for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Douglas Trumbull, directed it. Almost despite itself, the movie moved me in places, and I ended up quite enjoying it, even though there are many things about it I didn't particularly like. Many would consider this a boring movie, I am sure, as there are no fierce battles fought or alien beings threatening to destroy mankind. Silent Running is a thinking man's science-fiction film that succeeds or fails on its compelling storyline alone.
The story takes place some time in earth's near future, at a time when all plant life has been destroyed on the planet in some unexplained way; America's last forest land still exists, however - millions of miles out in space on board the Valley Forge. The ship carries along several huge geodesic domes filled with trees, flowers, garden plants, etc., along with much of the animal life that goes with them. A crew of four mans the ship, with the help of a number of mechanical drones, but only one, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) really cares about the forests in his care. We first meet the other three crew members racing willy-nilly around the ship in jeep like go-carts, thinking nothing of trampling a bunch of flowers or taking shortcuts through the grass. In person, they are even less likeable, making fun of Lowell's idealism and basically harrumphing on their own belief that the forests have no importance whatsoever. Lowell himself starts off on the wrong foot, in my opinion, in terms of the audience's reaction to him. The man is a wide-eyed zealot seemingly about two steps away from madness of a dangerous kind; I agreed with everything he said about the importance of the forests, but his words are somewhat lost on the listener (and the crew) because he is simply annoying in his fanaticism. His mood doesn't improve when the crew gets word that they are to destroy the forests and return home to commercial service. Freeman can't handle such a decision, so he does what he feels he must in order to save the last vestige of earth's forests still in existence.
The second half of the film revolves solely around Freeman, as he is basically stranded in space with his forest. His only companions are (originally) three drones, and in my opinion these little robotic guys steal the show. This is a 1971 film, so the drones are by no means technologically exotic, yet these things do have their own personalities; there are a couple of especially poignant moments with the drones that I would like to have seen explored on their own terms, but this would have wandered a little too far afield from the premise of the film. The ending is actually quite touching and, perhaps more importantly, it feels right to this viewer.
There is certainly a strong undercurrent of allegory working in this storyline. Freeman's fellow crew members represent society at large; their lack of concern for the forests and dismissal of any ecological cares at all are meant to be a condemnation of contemporary society's uncaring and unthinking attitude toward ecology on the planet. Freeman is an evangelical fanatic on the subject, a voice crying in a wilderness that may not survive much longer if things continue as they are; up until the very end, he does not give up hope, though, and that is the inspirational message that stays with the viewer after the movie ends. It's a rather somber and depressing movie for the most part, yet I, who would not call myself an environmentalist of any kind, was touched both emotionally and intellectually by the film. Freeman and his crewmates represent the extreme weights on both sides of the environmentalism/commercialism scale, and it is up to us, the viewers, to find a way to balance those opposing weights on our home planet.
on July 7, 1999
Douglas Trumbull, fresh from the triumph of working on the effects for "2001", directed this movie with a firm visual style and flair that is unusual for a first-time director.
Set in the far flung future aboard the spaceship "Valley Forge", Bruce Dern and three other astronauts maintain the huge vessel and the forests that it contains with the help of three ingeniously rendered robots. The robots are so convincing that they almost steal the show (I won't give away how they were done- it spoils the effect), but they remain classic depictions that are on par with Maria from "Metropolis", Robby from "Forbidden Planet" and the droids of "Star Wars".
A sad story with a surprisingly downbeat ending and a strong ecological message, "Silent Running" is a visual treat with outstanding special effects (designed and produced by Trumbull) and a very realistically-depicted "Valley Forge" spaceship. Trumbull had use of the decommissioned naval aircraft carrier "Valley Forge" before it was scrapped at the aptly-named Terminal Island facility in Long Beach, CA and he was able to modify many of it's vast interiors for use in the movie, all to good effect.
Bruce Dern turns in a great performance and this movie did much to enhance his career, as he is the lone human character for much of the film.
And about those Joan Baez ballads included in the soundtrack- you either love them or hate them. I think that they fit in fairly well and do much to convey the mood of the movie, especially after the sequence where the robots beat Bruce Dern at poker by cheating!
Several key production personnel who were involved with "Star Wars" just a couple of years later were part of the "Silent Running" crew and some of the design sensibilities set in the visual style of "Silent Running" later show up in "Star Wars".
"Silent Running" makes a perfect afternoon of sf film viewing along with the other movie directed by Douglas Trumbull- "Brainstorm".
Set in the far future aboard the spaceship "Valley Forge", Bruce Dern and three fellow astronauts maintain the huge vessel and the forests that it contains with the help of three ingeniously rendered robots. The robots are so convincing that they steal the show, but they remain classic depictions that are on par with Robby from "Forbidden Planet" and the droids of "Star Wars".
This is a sad story with a strong ecological message, "Silent Running" is a visual treat with outstanding special effects and a very realistically-depicted "Valley Forge" spaceship. A production note: Trumbull had use of the decommissioned naval aircraft carrier "Valley Forge" before it was scrapped and he was able to modify many of it's vast interiors for use in the movie, all to good effect.
Like death and dying, there are several stages in evaluating "Silent Running" as a film. The first stage is whoa! great effects, unusual idea for a film made in the early 1970s. The second stage is the realization that you are being hit with some of the hardest propaganda since "Battleship Potempkin" or "Triumph of the Will". The final stage is nostalgia for such a ground-breaking movie with super special effects.
Bruce Dern is comfy in his role as a slowly-unraveling sociopath. What many don't realize is that the screenplay was written by a then-young Michael Cimino and Steven Bochco ("The Deer Hunter", "NYPD Blue". What's truly amazing is the use of mechanical (not visual) effects. If you've never been on an aircraft carrier, you'll believe that there is an American Airlines cargo freighter "Valley Forge". The details are wonderful: the corporate logos on the cargo pods, the technical manuals lying around, the overall believability of the wonderful drones, the background radio chatter from the other ships.
It's a shame Douglas Trumbull hasn't been more visible, this was a great effort.
on October 8, 2000
I still wonder if Universal got the idea for Earth 2 from this film? All kidding aside. Silent Running is a classic science fiction adventure that has a strong, if not serious message to it. It depicts what our future might be like in the 8th year of the 21st Century, 2008 AD, and how the human race could easily cause a worldwide outbreak of pollution. It asks the the question of what would you do if you were in astronaut Lowell's (Bruce Dern)position. I like everything about this movie. From the special effects, to costumes, to set designs, to the plot, etc. Bruce Dern plays the character of Lowell extremely well. A conflicted man who sadly goes to extremes to save the last of Earth's forests from being destroyed. And the drones Huey, Dewey, and Louie were really cool. Obviously the model for R2-D2 in The Star Wars saga, the drones had a unique personality of their own. The other characters played by Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, and Jesse Vint truly represent the implicit cynicism that is in our world today. People who don't care about anything anymore. Only caring about the Almighty Dollar. Douglas Trumbull did an extraordianry job directing the film. His experience as a special effects technician in both 2001 and The Andromeda Strain really shows and pays off in this wonderful film. A film that has a personality of its own. If you enjoy good science fiction, you'll enjoy this cult-classic.
Interesting trivia note-stock footage of this film was used in another science ficion cult-classic. Battlestar Galactica.
on November 13, 2007
This film is a product of its era. It has effects that were state of the art in 1973, a sound track by PDQ Bach and Joan Baez and a story line about the results of guilt, loneliness and isolation, about being in a "no win" situation and having to betray yourself by action, or by inaction and the results that such a choice will have on a person.
Lots of snide comments are made about this film, and it will certainly not appeal to everyone. It is not action driven and the main conflict is internal to Dern's character. If you want a film that dwells on how pretty it can be watch something else. If you want to see action watch the first Star Wars. If you want to see a film that for a tiny budget and shot in 30 days actually has some guts to say something about how we treat our resources and how we treat ourselves; about how sometimes choices we make for love can be just as damaging to us as ones made for other reasons, how sometimes the choices we have before us lead to nowhere except our own destruction, but that maybe even with all that something "not replacable" can still be salvaged watch this film.
I first saw this in the theater way back when. Sci-fi has come a long way, but this movie is not without it's charms. Back then it really did seem possible that we could destroy the planet with pollution. And, there wasn't all that much sci-fi going on back in those days during the big gap between 2001 in the late Sixties and Star Wars in the mid-to-late Seventies.
Now, the reason I'm giving it five stars isn't so much that this is a great movie. It is good, but what really makes this DVD worth the relatively low price is all the extras and interviews. It's a trip back in time the viewer can learn from regardless of his/her politics when it comes to environmentalism.
Actually, the main character's willingness to kill his fellow crew members to save the trees and critters was way more disturbing to me now than it was back then.
It's many years in the future. Though the earth maintains a constant 75 degrees there are no forests left. The only place to find a forest is in space, in bio-domes attached to spaceships protecting them. After six months into this experimental effort to save the forests, the Valley Forge and her sister ships are ordered to abandon and nuclear-destruct the forests, then return the spaceships to commercial service. Aboard the Valley Forge is botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern - a very young Bruce Dern) who is the only member of the four-man crew who actually cares for the forests. (He's portrayed very "hippie-ish", including wearing long canvas-type robes and longer hair than the other men) Lowell doesn't just care for the forests, he defends them and lives for them.
With orders received, when the men begin to nuclear-destruct the bio-domes, Lowell goes a little off the edge in defending his forests, and winds out killing all his crewmates. He then steers the spaceship towards an outer ring of Saturn, where the other ships can't follow. Now he's alone with his three (adorable) robots, Huey, Dewey, and Louie. (Louie is accidentally lost during the storm of Saturn's ring) With no more human contact, Lowell's glitchy behavior slowly descends into madness.
It's this major part of the film that intrigues me so. Lowell's decay is slow, but with pointedly increasing markers leading his way to full insanity. The ending is surprising but appropriate. It's said to be difficult for an actor to single handedly carry a show, but Dern manages quite impressively. The special effects are of course a bit cheesy, but while the robots are not high-tech they certainly are adorable and fill their roles in the plot nicely. Unfortunately, there are also a couple of very cheesy Joan Baez "nature" songs in the movie, you'll want to plug your ears or hit mute for those, unless you actually like the 70's "hippie-pop".
'Silent Running' is a must-see Classic SciFi film, even if it's somewhat outdated. It's not the best movie you'll ever watch but if you're a lover of SciFi you should treat yourself to some of the breakthroughs made in the SciFi film industry, 'Silent Running' being a part of that phenomenon. It's also a highly interesting study of the human condition, and how we are designed to be a "herd" mammal rather than loners. Rent first. Enjoy!
on January 31, 2014
In one of my earlier reviews (for "Ender's Game'), I mentioned a current Lament, that there aren't enough highly imaginative, and thought-provoking Science Fiction (or as Harlan Ellison would say, Speculative Fiction) Films being made, nowadays. There are probably a number of reasons for this, the main one being Hollywood's eternal Love of FORMULA = most films called `Science Fiction' are really just formula Action pictures (in the mode of the original Die-Hard, with excessive gunplay, explosions and other enormous pyro-technics standing in for what used to be referred to as `suspense' `imaginative Story' `character development' etc.).
In a sad sense, the huge financial successes of many `SciFi' films has been their ultimate undoing = ever since Star Wars (which actually was an immensely creative/imaginative film) Hollywood has equated Science Fiction with both `Cash Cow' and `the Bigger the Better' in terms of Special Effects. Now to be fair, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and a number of the Star Trek films (especially `Voyage Home' `First Contact' and even the most current version) were full of creativity and certainly not brain-dead! But the vast majority of SciFi movies are either forgettable, or interchangeable with generic action/adventure films.
But once a Long-time ago...... in a galaxy (seemingly) far, far away........... some of the most imaginative, and perhaps even the more idealistic people (aka. the foolish ones?) worked on/ dreamed of making SciFi masterpieces?!!!! I don't think Hollywood financiers were very much interested at that time (up thru the 1950's SciFi = grade B, or C => Monster in `rubber suit' fare - other than the very occasional revelation like the original `Day the Earth Stood Still')!!
I think the SciFi film `Enlightenment' might have actually seen its beginnings on television! Rod Serling's Twilight Zone (1959-1964) cast the first shards of Light (e.g. morality plays set in `harmless' fantasy/SciFi settings, but astute viewers got the message rather quickly!) Then Gene Roddenberry's `Star Trek' (written by real/ authentic Science Fiction authors, with scripts of a high quality rarely even seen in movies, of the Time!).
Then a slew of `serious' thought-provoking SciFi movies beginning about 1967 thru mid-1970's: original "Planet of the Apes" "2001: a Space Odyssey" "Charley (aka Flowers for Algernon)" "Fahrenheit 451 (actually from France 1966)" "Colossus-aka the Forbin Project" "The Illustrated Man" "No Blade of Grass" "The Omega Man" "A Clockwork Orange" "THX-1138" "Andromeda Strain" "Silent Running" "Slaughterhouse Five" "original Solaris" "Soylent Green (it's made out of peeeeeeople!!!)" "Westworld" "Phase IV" "Zardoz" "The Questor Tapes (made for TV by Roddenberry, but Awesome!)" "A Boy & His Dog" 'the uncannily prescient "Rollerball" "Logan's Run (aka. age 30, is the new 90!)"! Did I miss any? The obvious point being that nearly all the previously Listed movies, were 1) based on highly imaginative/speculative stories, many by renowned SciFi writers with quite serious (but also intensely interesting) scenarios about possible futures. And 2) with the exception of `2001' (and perhaps the first Planet of the Apes), these films were all made on very `modest' to tiny budgets - therefore requiring even more Creativity & imagination from their Directors, Producers, Set-designers, and Actors to convince audiences that we were really getting a glimpse of those possible/ conceivable FUTUREs. Very commendable Work, since most of the above films were almost completely successful in their abilities to `convince' and most have become bonafide Classics of the genre!.
One of the most impressive, with the smallest budget (compared to the Large-Scale of what transpires on screen), but biggest IMAGINATION (and perhaps even biggest `artificial' Heart*) is "Silent Running"!
Silent Running from 1971, directed by Douglas Trumbull* (the special effects genius behind Kubrick's '2001' and Spielberg's 'Close Encounters of 3K' and the first Star Trek Film from 1980) - apparently, after the stimulating experience of '2001' Trumbull wanted to put on screen his own unique 'Vision' of the Future - the only problem, the Limited budget of only about $1 million (as reference, '2001' cost close to 10x that, in 1967/68 dollars - did you know that the original 'Star Wars' was also made at just under $10 million, in 1976/77?).
Anyway, it seemed like an impossible challenge to put a Large - scale 'visionary' SciFi film on screen with a measly $1 mil. But somehow, Trumbull did it - now of course, a few hundred thousand more, and a couple more weeks shooting schedule, might have helped with 'continuity' (some parts seem slightly disjointed). But this film's many virtues, amazing visuals, and brilliant Acting by the always intense & charismatically 'off-balance' Bruce Dern, and especially those three mechanical/ 'method' actors: Huey, Dewey, and Louie (best supporting 'androids'?) - create truly unique, and almost mesmerizing other-worldly characterizations!!! Bruce Dern = the 'Dean of the Demented' but in the most fascinating way (is there really a teachable acting 'method' for this?!) Seriously, Dern has always been a very underrated actor, but he might finally get his due this Year - I predict he will win Best Actor, for "Nebraska" (but only based on the 'clips' I have seen, since I did not view the complete movie yet). And also most seriously: Huey, Dewey & Louie, the three incredibly charismatic, vertically challenged (but expert poker playing) Robots! These guys (one might be a girl) really steal the show! George Lucas should pay them huge Royalties, since R2D2 seems like a pale carbon (and I don't care if he's made of Titanium) Copy of these three 'steel-cased' stooges! I'm not kidding here, the three robot side-kicks were a truly inspired idea! And not wanting to give away too much of the plot (in case you haven't already seen this), one of these mighty mini-robots plays a huge role, and is absolutely critical to this Story (especially the 'environmental' message part!). The robots also have the most authentic 'artificial' *Heartfelt scenes! One very strong memory from childhood, around 1975, when I first saw this on commercial TV, at about 8 years old, was how emotionally 'crushed/devastated' I was, at the demise of one of these ultra charismatic robots on screen - that's how genuine these mechanical characterizations seemed (each with its unique 'personality') to me at the Time!
Anyway, as I got older, I found the Environmental warnings (and SciFi 'solutions' presented), to be most intriguing, and thought-provoking! And I later also came to appreciate the 1960's 'flower-power' drenched Music Score, by authentic 'Earth-Mother' Joan Baez (with orchestral/ composer assist by Peter Schickele, of P.D.Q Bach fame!)
The Bottom Line: this is a very compelling & Imaginative Speculative Fiction Story, and a Uniquely Fantastic Movie (please forgive the obvious budget constraints). And root for Bruce Dern to finally win his Long overdue Oscar! I would also root for the mechanical method Actors Huey, Dewey & Louie - but I think they gave-up 'Show biz' long ago = I wonder where they are now? ==>probably circling the Rings of Saturn - and mingling with the REAL Stars!!
note*: based on the incredible technical achievement, and amazingly 'moving' performances associated with this Film, I have always wondered why Douglas Trumbull did not go on to become a Big name, in Hollywood, on the Level of Spielberg, Lucas or James Cameron = since it seemed highly likely from the results of this movie, that Trumbull had the same 'genius' combination of technological wizardry, with substantial Dramatic 'vision' (for example, I could see him making a film like 'Avatar' in 3-D and IMAX, but twenty years earlier!)
post-script: I was almost tempted to write another review for one of my other favorite films from this period = "Soylent Green" (but this one seems almost too Real - and soon no longer contained within the realm of Science 'Fiction' - but the Bright-side is that, at about 6 years of Age, it introduced me to Beethoven's 6th 'Pastoral' Symphony** - during the character 'Sol Roth's' extremely peaceful demise, and also at the End credits!)
It's amazing how this Music, so full of Life, momentarily counteracts the otherwise gloomy proceedings.
note**: I now can't remember if I saw this before or after Disney's Fantasia which also feature Beethoven's Pastoral 6th (in fact I think my Dad took me to see both, in the same Year - but I can't remember which exact months - it was 'positive reinforcement' either way!)
Also, there have been other/ even older, and truly Visionary SciFi films: "Metropolis" (from 1927, Weimar period Germany & Fritz Lang) and H.G. Wells' 'Things to Come' (Produced in Great Britain, 1936) - if you haven't already seen these, they are AMAZING for their times - but make sure you watch the 'fully restored' versions!!
To be fair post-scrpt2: Steven Spielberg's 2002 'Minority Report' was excellent thought-provoking Speculative Fiction, written by the Brilliantly Other-Worldly, Philip K. Dick = who also wrote the Story basis for "Blade Runner" (original Book Title: 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?')
When "Silent Running" first appeared in theaters, I responded enthusiastically, but compared it with "2001" & found it somewhat lacking in comparison. Returning to it all these years later, I realize my error in youthful judgment. This is a superb film on all levels, from technical expertise to human drama -- a one-man showcase for Bruce Dern -- to its ecological message. It's that last part some people have issues with, calling it heavy-handed or outright propaganda -- but as I write this review, I see that Donald Trump has just announced that he'd abolish the EPA, and that as far as the environment goes, "We can save bits of it, but we have to save businesses too." The corporate devouring of the natural world continues unabated some 45+ years after this film was made, which makes the film all too relevant even now.
But let's regard it simply as a story, since that's where it ultimately has to stand or fall. In the near future, Earth has been so over-developed that it's become an entirely artificial, technological environment. The last remnants of the natural world are preserved on greenhouse ships in space. But when it's decided to save money by simply scrapping them, the aptly named Freeman Lowell is the only crewman who objects, as he's the only one who truly loves & cherishes the handful of living things that once were the natural Earth.
What follows is a tour-de-force in acting from Bruce Dern as Lowell's passion & fears drive him to extremes in order to save the last trees & plants & living creatures. The depiction of his actions, as well as the ever-growing guilt that results, is played out in slow, steady measures. We can empathize with Lowell even as we reject what seems to him to be his only choice ... and we're also asked to consider what we would do in his place. Does he have any other choice? What do we really value about life?
While this is intense stuff, the film wisely includes humor in the shape of his robotic helpers, all of whom we come to regard as people, just as Lowell does. And there's heartbreak amid the humor as the story continues to its inevitable conclusion. The soundtrack by Joan Baez is a point of contention for some viewers, but to my mind it suits the story admirably -- I think you need a sincere, heartfelt voice here. Of course the film is visually impressive even today; but effects are merely the backdrop for a very human story, one that demands more from its viewers than merely passive viewing. We are asked to both think & feel deeply about our own world, and what we've done to it -- most highly recommended!