'70s films, '70s-era, Bruce Dern, Charles F. Wheeler, cinema, Cliff Potts, Deric Washburn, Dewey and Louie, director-producer, directorial debut, Douglas Trumbull, Earth, environmentalism, film reviews, films, Freeman Lowell, global warming, greenhouse effect, Huey, Jesse Vint, L.A. Law, lost in space, Michael Cimino, Monsanto, Movies, near future, NYPD Blue, outer space, robot helpers, Ron Rifkin, sci-fi, Silent Running, space operas, special effects, Steve Bochco, Steven Bochco, The Deer Hunter, trees, Truck Turner, visual effects pioneer
Sometimes, science fiction can be so fantastic, so out-of-this-world, that it leaves the realm of “science” and puts both feet firmly in the “fiction” camp. Take Douglas Trumbull’s ’70s-era sci-fi film, Silent Running, for example. In this particular movie, we’re led to believe that in the near future, mankind has destroyed Earth’s atmosphere due to unchecked industrialization and pollution, leading to the loss of all flora on the planet. Not only are we asked to buy this utterly outrageous scenario (since when has unchecked industrialization ever led to anything but more money and happiness?) but it’s also compounded by a further bit of foolishness: in order to preserve what trees and plants are remaining, we’ve put them aboard gigantic, spaceship-sized greenhouses and sent them into space, where they can be free from Earth’s noxious atmosphere, serving as a melancholy reminder of what we once enjoyed.
As mentioned, utter hogwash: why in the Sam Hell would we waste money sending the trees into space when we could just let them die, for free, by doing nothing? As long as future generations can read about them, that should be more than sufficient: no self-respecting “person-in-charge” would spend one cent on this foolishness, much less the perceived mega-cost of a fleet of spaceships. After all…they’re just trees, right? What real use do they have, besides the obvious benefit of building resources and mass-producing toothpicks?
Silent Running is concerned with Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), an employee of the defunct Forestry Department who has spent the past eight years tending the last remaining forests. These forests have been uprooted from their native terra firme and set to space, orbiting Saturn in massive “greenhouses” in order to protect them from Earth’s now noxious environment. Lowell is the epitome of the tree-hugging peacenik: hanging out in long, flowing, Druid-style robes; growing his own, organic food; petting fluffy bunnies and tenderly planting each new seed, cutting and sapling. His crew members, however, aren’t quite as eco-friendly as ol’ Lowell: Barker (Ron Rifkin), Wolf (Jesse Vint) and Keenan (Cliff Potts) spend their days racing around the spaceship on ATVs (crushing Lowell’s plants in the process), scarfing down the fake, processed “food” that they’ve been provided and bitching about being stuck in space with hippy Lowell, when they’d much rather be back on good ol’ Earth, pollution be damned. When a communique comes in from Earth, Lowell expects the best (the reinstatement of the Forestry Department and his installation as Director) but gets the worst (nuke the forests and bring the ships back to Earth, where they can be re-purposed for commercial usage.
Lowell, of course, is devastated: this is akin to a mass genocide, for him, and synonymous with giving up the rest of our (tenuous) humanity. The others, however, are overjoyed and rush to set the nukes as quickly as they’re able. While the other ships around him begin to glow with the inferno of their “cleansing,” Lowell just can’t let that fate befall the forests under his care. In a moment of terrifying clarity, Lowell takes matters into his own hands and, with the assistance of his faithful robotic helpers, Huey and Dewey, sets out to atone for mankind’s mistakes and preserve the forests, at all costs.
When visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull directed Silent Running in 1972, there no way he could have known how prescient the film would become by 2014, a mere 40+ years later. After all, Silent Running is a film that examines not only over-industrialization, pollution, resource management (and waste) and global warming but it also manages to throw haymakers at genetically modified food and our species’ tendency to put the almighty dollar above the needs of the natural order. In a day and age when words like “Monsanto” and “GMO” are hot-button issues and revelations about global warming on shows like Fox’s Cosmos can bring the kind of angry debates that used to be restricted to questions like “Tastes great?” or “Less filling?”, it definitely seems like our world is ready for another look at this chestnut. While there’s plenty of hippy-dippy silliness to be found here (the ’60s weren’t far in the rearview mirror, after all), there’s also a surprisingly somber and moving meditation on what it means to be human, what it means to be a guest and what it means when we’ve lost something as basic as the plants around us. Throw in a powerful, nearly solo performance from Bruce Dern and you’ve got a film that deserves to be given a chance to add its voice to the current debate.
Right off the bat, Silent Running looks absolutely gorgeous, featuring some of the most majestic space shots you’re likely to see from that era (2001: A Space Odyssey, by contrast, came out a mere four years before Silent Running). Trumbull was an award-winning, visionary, special effects pioneer whose work in films like 2001 (1968), The Andromeda Strain (1971), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and, my personal favorite, Blade Runner (1982), pushed the genre (and films, in general) into exiting, new places. His work on Silent Running, perhaps because it was a labor of love, are exemplary: the early shot we get as the camera zooms out of the forest and into outer space, to reveal the greenhouse-ships for the first time, is a true stunner. Words like “awe-inspiring” get thrown around a lot today but I would love to have been able to experience this film in the theater, with other people: I can’t imagine that there was anyone there who didn’t have their mind blown by that initial reveal. Likewise, the scene where Lowell navigates through the rings of Saturn is a Technicolor marvel, reminiscent of the equally impressive space-travel scene in 2001.
Trumbull also used real people, under costuming, for the parts of the robot helpers, which gives them an odd sense of movement that’s strangely realistic: it’s an interesting effect that only speaks to the care and attention put into the production. Truth be told, everything about the visual style of Silent Running works exceptionally well: the sense of world-building in the film is pretty complete, unlike more generic “space operas” that feature anonymous scenery and Spaceship #1, Robot #5 scenarios. By extension, the acting in Silent Running is pretty good, although all other characters become subsidiary to Dern’s, by the end. Although this isn’t a “one-man-show” film like Moon (2009), Wrecked (2010), Gravity (2013) or All is Lost (2013), the focus is squarely on Dern throughout, with the other characters serving only to play up elements of his own personality or to provide him moral/logistic challenges.
Dern has been a helluva career actor, logging time in nearly 150 projects in just over 50 years, with many of them being of the utmost quality. He’s easily one of our most under-rated actors and Silent Running gives a great opportunity to see Dern play a role that’s more low-key than his usual parts but no less passionate. Without Dern’s powerful performance, Silent Running would be a beautiful bit of cotton-candy, big ideas in search of an anchor: Dern is just that anchor, attaching the film’s ideas about ecology and conservationism to a decidedly human ideal. It’s a sad, sympathetic performance and, to be honest, quite haunting: I found myself thinking about Freeman Lowell quite a bit in the days following my screening of the film.
In another nifty hat-trick, Silent Running’s script also featured the early effort of two gentlemen who would go on to full careers: Michael Cimino and Steven Bochco. Ciminio, of course, is best known for the epic failure that was Heaven’s Gate (1980) but he also wrote and directed the award-winning The Deer Hunter (1978), as well as writing the Clint Eastwood vehicles Magnum Force (1973) and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). Bochco, of course, is the guy synonymous with creating a TV empire, including such iconic shows as Hill Street Blues, Doogie Howser, M.D., L.A. Law and NYPD Blue. Together with Deric Washburn (who also worked on The Deer Hunter screenplay with Cimino), they’ve turned in a really tight script, filled not only with gripping action sequences (the aforementioned Saturn crossing, the race against time with the nukes) but also big emotional beats (Lowell’s inspiring speech to his crew members, the poignant and lovely finale). Silent Running is that rare event movie that is actually about something, rather than being a mindless excuse to consume popcorn.
If there is any point where the film feels “silly” or dated, it would definitely have to be the awful theme songs, sung by Joan Baez. The songs are both stereotypical hippy twaddle, to be frankly honest, and seem so cliché as to drive the rest of the film down. In one key scene, one of the stupid songs scores a bit where a hawk flies to Lowell’s outstretched: combined with the song, the scene is so ridiculous and treacley as to be laughable. If anyone wants to cast dispersion on Silent Running, let it be for the awful songs, which give the exact mental image that the rest of the film works so hard to contradict. Lowell may be a “hippy” but the songs are the worst kind of pabulum and definitely do the film a disservice.
There’s a point, in the film, where Lowell argues with his ship-mates over the tide of progress that’s brought them to where they are now. As the other men point out, Earth’s policies may have done irreparable damage to the environment and the flora but it also led to no poverty, no disease and a constant temperature of 75 degrees. In short, this has become a “golden age” for mankind, despite the implications for everyone else. This may be true, Lowell grants, but it also means there is no more imagination, no more frontiers to conquer…because we just don’t care anymore. When we turn our backs on the natural world and defy the complex machinery of nature, we’re making a definite statement: we know better than you do, whoever you may be. “You” may be a higher power or it may be a dedicated group of environmental activists. “You” may be a raft of scientists or it may be the board of directors of a mega-corporation. “You” could be a bunch of loud-mouthed “eco-terrorists” or it could be Mother Nature, herself.
In this day and age, “we” are so sure about everything, so confident in our own boundless abilities, that we always know better than “you.” This, of course, is a shame: we can always stand to learn from others, no matter who they are or what they believe. In crafting a bold, new world for humanity we have said, unequivocally, that we know what is best for the planet and, by default, what is best for every living thing on it. This is not only hubris but it’s dangerous. In the business world, sticking to the same unsuccessful strategy would not only be considered pointless but it would also be seen as crazy. We’ve tried to wring every last drop and resource out of our planet for almost 200 years, now: maybe it’s finally time to try something different.