Other films by Douglas Trumbull: Brainstorm
Similar films: Moon
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Stars: Bruce Dern
Genre: Science Fiction
Silent Running is a science fiction film from 1972, the directorial debut of Douglas Trumbull, he had previously worked on the special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Andromeda Strain, two classics of the genre. Since 1972 he has gone on to do special effects on films like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, and the very recent The Tree of Life. Quite the skilled visual effects creator to say the least, but how's his directing?
A dystopia for daisies, an apocalypse for acorns, and a wasteland for willows; Silent Running takes place in a futuristic setting, where the only remaining plant-life exists in a group of spaceships orbiting Saturn. The Earth is nude of vegetation, likely replaced with technology and cities, and these few ships hold the last surviving forests (and seemingly the last forest critters as well). No one even values such things anymore, and fail to see the beauty in a leaf or a flower. Except for crewman Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) that is, who, upon being ordered to blowup the last existing forests, steals one of the domes holding a forest, killing his crewmates in the process, and fleeing into the depths of space with it.
The film's environmental message is not quite subtle. In fact it's a bit heavy-handed. No that it's a bad message--quite a good one I'd say--it's just a little too blatant for my tastes. But it really depends on how you look at it; indeed I've seen some people interpret it as a liberal film preaching environmentalism and condemning technology, and others as a conservative film warning of the danger that extreme environmentalism can lead to. Nonetheless, to see the message as the film's only purpose, or even one of its main purposes, is an error. The film is actually quite sophisticated and contains much depth beyond its arguable political leanings.
Take the main character for instance: Freeman Lowell is the film's main character, but he's certainly not your average movie hero, nor he is your typical villain or antihero. He's almost all three at once, and is probably one of the most morally complex characters ever written in a film. His desire to cherish the forests and to preserve them from extinction is certainly a noble one. Not only that, but it's the duty he swore to when taking the job. But the way he goes about this noble deed is in a completely immoral way: by killing his crewmates. Is killing three men justified by saving the last forest? Not really, and our main character would seem to agree. For the rest of the film we see him dealing with what he had done, what he certainly had regretted doing. It drives him to misery and near insanity. He wanted to save what he thought gave humans their humanity. To him that domed forest was a microcosm of Earth, with infinite beauty. He didn't want an Earth where everything was artificial and utopia produced sameness and dullness. But in trying to save this beacon of humanity he lost his own humanity, compromised one set of morals in order to uphold another. Morally conflicted, and likely confused. While alone in space, realizing, through boring games of pool and poker, that above all it is other humans that give us our humanity. A well written and tragic character no doubt.
Bruce Dern was a great choice for such a complex role. This was his first lead role, and he had previously been cast as mostly villainous characters (in The Cowboys, released the very same year, he killed John Wayne). It helps support the moral ambiguity of the character. And he plays it well, giving a good performance, blurring the lines between passion and insanity, even if he may seem a little over-the-top, or even tongue-in-cheek.
I'm quite fond of the film's ending [Spoilers in this paragraph]. The main character kills himself out of guilt, or possibly even out of fear or dread of the "foul Earth". But not before sending out his "message in a bottle" into the vast oceans of space, a dome of trees to one day be found by someone hopefully more appreciating of its beauty than the current human race. And on that drifting dome is a single robot taking care of the plants. Technology both destroys and saves nature.
On a more technical side, the special effects are pretty impressive. I wouldn't call it Trumbull's prettiest film--it's certainly no 2001 or Blade Runner, but then again it didn't have the budget those two did. For what it is though there are some very solid visuals and great modelwork.
The service robots, or drones as they're called (eventually nicknamed Louie, Huey, and Dewey) not only predate R2-D2 but are also probably the most lovable robots of all-time, right up there with WALL-E. The robots function very much like robots, existing only to serve humans (Silent Running was in many ways a response to the humanized machines and dehumanized humans in 2001: A Space Odyssey), and certainly lacking the human personalities of C3PO and R2-D2, but yet the robots have a certain anthropomorphic quality to them, especially in the way they move, that makes them so very likable and bring sadness to viewers whenever they get hurt. This is likely due to the fact that the drones were actually amputees in costume. The drone costumes were specifically designed to fit amputees, which gives them a certain... aliveness. It's genius and a bit scary at the same time. But it worked well.
There are some issues I have with the film. Some things just didn't make much sense. Did the film really expect us to believe that a botanist with at least 8 years of experience would forget, and take so long to remember, that plants needed sunlight to grow? Really? That's a bit beyond my suspension of disbelief.
Another pet peeve I have is that I wished a bit more time was spent on the actual forest. I would have liked the camera to show me the beauty of nature rather than the main character tell me about it. There's a beautiful opening shot of flowers and snails and there's a few short clips of rabbits eating grass and whatnot, but the forest, for being such a central element, is largely ignored and left to be seen only in the background. Trumbull's inexperience when it comes to directing occasionally shows.
Silent Running is far from the perfect film, but what it does achieve is quite impressive. I was a little undecided on it at first. Upon immediate viewing I actually disliked it, but after some thought and sinking in it's only gotten better in my mind--so much so that I can't wait to re-watch it. It's influence can be seen from Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica to Moon.