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As this science fiction classic opens, botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) has spent eight years aboard the space freighter "Valley Forge" preserving the only botanical specimens left from Earth under huge geodesic domes. When he receives orders to destroy the project and return home, Lowell rebels and hijacks the freighter, while plunging the craft into the gaseous Rings of Saturn. From that moment on, he has only the trees, the gardens and two "Drone" robots, Huey and Dewey, to keep him company on his greatest adventure of all.
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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?')
This sci-fi movie from the seventies really stuck with me. Being a nature lover, the idea of the last forests on earth being stored in space after the near deforestation of our planet in some distant future was both noble and scary all at the same time. I vaguely remembered a man and three tiny robots try to keep the last one (forest) alive after the powers that be on earth decide to destroy them. All were blown to bits...except for the last one. Thanks to the total refusal of one man on the last habitat, on the last ship, decides that nature is to precious to just throw away. The man takes drastic measures to protect his forest....mentally unstable, he takes the ship out of orbit and runs... and the eerie ending was (at the time) totally shocking to me. And it still was after alllll these years!
An astronaut / environmentalist has cared for 3 space domes filled with the last remnants of a forest. Apparently in the future the Earth has become so polluted that plant life cannot exist there. The idea is to grow these forests in space and return them to earth when the planet has stabilized. But the program is cancelled and the domes are ordered to be destroyed. With the help of 3 robots, the scientist takes over the spaceship, determined to save his forests from destruction, and possibly Earth itself.
This was one of Bruce Dern's early movies (he gained notoriety for killing John Wayne in a movie called The Cowboys) Fortunately that scene didn't kill his career. The film was made on an aircraft carrier to give viewers the effect of a ship, and it works well. The special effects are great for its time, but nothing like compared today. The direct worked on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick, where I believe he found his inspiration to make this movie. It's highly enjoyable.
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