Silent Running ★★★★

Douglas Trumbull, legendary special photographic effects wizard on films such as 2001, Star Trek the Motion Picture, Close Encounters, Blade Runner, The Tree of Life and many others, had an ambition and opportunity in 1971 to seat himself in the director’s chair. It also provided a challenge for him to test his resourcefulness, as his budget for his sci-fi high concept film would be under $1M.

With a budget that tight, and a Sci-Fi that will be compared, at least on a technical level, to a previous film you worked on, 2001: A Space Odyssey, needless to say you save money wherever you can so that you can put every bit of visual pop up on the screen. Hire students as model makers. Act as your own Special Photographic Effects supervisor. Hire fresh faced writers like Michael Cimino and Derick Washburn who were looking for their first film job, and a slightly more experienced, with a single TV and film writing credit to his name, Steven Bochco. You also look for an up and coming actor to play your lead, one who’s looking to transition from a decade of TV work into motion pictures, and one who could handle the emotional and psychological complexities of your protagonist. Scout the Navy to see if maybe you can film on a decommissioned ship, Oh, and finally figure out how you can accomplish everything within a 32 day shooting schedule.

As the first act spins up, it doesn’t look that good for Silent Running. Buffoonish, testosterone filled astronauts spouting dialogue that sounds like it was written by sixth graders, and a premise so full of holes ( we want to save the ecosystem of the earth since the earth can no longer support it so we pack it up and send it to orbit around frackin’ SATURN! No, don’t just park it in earth orbit, and maybe make a bit of change with eco-tourism, send it to frackin’ SATURN … why? So our protagonist can make a stealthy escape amongst SATURN’s rings ) that there are actually more holes than plot. Also, make your environmental message so heavy handed, and reinforce it with the vocal strains of legendary, but polarizing, folk singer Joan Baez, enough so that even the most ardent tree hugger would be looking for a rope with which to throw over a bough and hang themselves.

But then it happens. Silent Running turns on a dime and reveals it’s true self. Silent Running isn’t really a science fiction film at all, it a film about the devolution of a passionate man; a deterioration of the psyche caused by isolation and regret. This is where Trumbull’s writing and casting choices pay jackpot dividends. I cannot imagine another actor who could play the troubled environmentalist Freeman Lowell than the incomparable Bruce Dern. His ability to portray controlled insanity in a humanly compassionate and relatable way is both simultaneously chilling, frightening, and heartbreaking.

As important, and in many ways more so, is the non-verbal writing, costumes, sound effects, and actors that came together to realize Freeman’s final companions, the maintenance drones, Huey, Louie, and Dewey. Before they are even given names, there is a scene that is simply heartbreaking. As the film progresses, we have scene after scene that are interspersed with brilliant subtle comedy and gut-wrenching poignancy. A simple scene where Lowell has to explain to one of the drones that he can’t repair his mechanical friend is one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever experienced, and always brings me to tears.

While the model effects aren’t quite the quality of 2001, they are certainly serviceable and don’t detract from the film. Likewise the ‘shooting the rapids’ through Saturn’s rings, and the ejection of the domes. It’s interesting that Trumbull eschewed the flat screen displays using rear projection techniques that he created for 2001 in favour of conventional CRT display instrumentation. In a way I think this was a matter of necessity ( no prep time to create all the detailed effects footage, and no need to create custom display sets … just use standard monitors and oscilloscopes ), and fit in better with the borrowed battle-grey interiors of the Navy aircraft carrier, but perhaps by circumstance, but also perhaps by design, it gave The Valley Forge a gritty look that was prescient of films like Alien, Blade Runner, and 2010 that would arrive on the scene several years later.

All in all I think Trumbull got far more right than he got wrong, and Silent Running holds up as a brilliant psychological drama despite its flaws. Plus, where do you think Lucas got the idea for R2D2 from? Oh, and I love the Joan Baez songs, too.

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