Silent Running (1972)

“On this first day of a new century, we humbly beg forgiveness.”

Synopsis:
In a dystopic near-future, the Earth has been paved over, and the remaining gardens exist inside orbiting satellites manned by astronauts on a spaceship. When the ship receives order to destroy the satellites, an environmentally-conscious crewmate named Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) commits mutiny, and does what he can to protect his precious plants.

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Review:
Douglas Trumbull (who created the special effects for both 2001 and The Andromeda Strain) made his directorial debut with this unusual science fiction flick. Silent Running features an impressive lead performance by Bruce Dern, and poses a provocative dilemma: what if you were asked to destroy the only remaining vegetation in existence? Would you blindly follow orders (as do the rest of Freeman’s crewmates), or take a stand and risk your life to “save the plants” at any cost?

The bulk of the film follows Freeman’s gradual mental deterioration as he deals with profound loneliness, and tries to prevent his superiors from learning the truth about what’s happened. His interactions with three “friendly” robots on board the ship — Huey, Dewey, and Louie — are campy, but we actually start to care for these metallic creatures after a while, and can relate to Freeman’s fondness for them. The film’s ending generates true pathos: as Freeman makes the ultimate sacrifice in favor of his beliefs, we realize we’ve become just as invested in the outcome as our wacky yet noble protagonist.

P.S. The incredibly dated soundtrack (sung by Joan Baez) quickly becomes insufferable, but is all part of the experience of this uniquely-’70s cult favorite.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bruce Dern as the dedicated gardener who will stop at nothing to protect his plants
    Dern
  • Impressive early special effects and set designs
    Set
  • An amusing yet eerie glimpse — a la Cast Away (2000) — at how loneliness can lead to increasingly wacky interactions with non-human objects
    Poker

Must See?
Yes. This cult movie — while certainly hokey in many ways — remains a surprisingly effective cautionary tale.

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One Response to “Silent Running (1972)”

  1. Not a must, but not a total waste of time, mainly because of its still-relevant premise.

    John Waters once said (and I agree) it’s ridiculous when people remake a film that was already OK in the first place; it makes more sense to remake a film that didn’t get it right the first time. ‘Silent Running’ is such a film. The story has incredible potential but, as executed, it’s under-developed. We never really get that far beyond the film’s set-up. Eventually, it becomes apparent that the writers hadn’t figured out where to take their potent idea. So, the movie really doesn’t have much of anywhere to go. This doesn’t seem to have concerned director Trumbull all that much because his intent seems to have been to present the film as more of a mood piece anyway. As a result, we are also left with something very slowly paced (not a bad thing in itself, if there’s a reason).

    Of the four characters, Dern’s is the only one who remotely – remotely – seems to be some kind of astronaut. The others merely come off as frat boys – not astronauts who have a ‘frat boy side’ to them; just frat boys. Although it is nice to see Dern playing a sympathetic character for a change (and that’s almost enough of a novelty right there), it’s especially frustrating listening to him in two reflective sequences (the first in which he has the urge to ‘pray’; the second at film’s end) which ultimately seem kind of touchy-feely jn their pointlessness. And…why does Dern not know…until the end of the film…that his garden needs light to survive?

    It’s true – whoever hired Baez to accompany the film made a mistake. It’s jarring when she enters. That aside, the film score itself, by Peter Schickele (who I grew up knowing as the very clever creator of P.D.Q. Bach – for details, visit http://www.schickele.com), is rather a plus for the film.

    This really does come off as something that is aching to be done right.

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