Silent Running ★★★

After starting off on the wrong foot with in-your-face environmentalism and blatant product placement (not to mention confoundedly contradictory considering the film's theme), Silent Running quickly settles into a groove that smooths most of the initial bumps. Mostly a one man (and two robot) show, Bruce Dern does an amazing job of making his space-faring, hippie psychopath somewhat endearing as his already cracked psyche adjusts to life in space alone. While some of his scenes were a little hammy (he has trouble selling a few of his later emotional breakdowns), he has more than enough good ones, especially when acting the hellfire-and-brimstone preacher for the film's cautionary tale of conservationism.

And as cheesy as the whole thing comes off (I can't help but think of '70s TV space operas, like the original Battlestar Galactica and V), Doug Trumbell is obviously a man with an impressive vision. The idea of the spacecraft is a good one, and besides the tepid implementation of space itself, the miniature effects works hold up today. And those droids...man, those droids. Huey and Dewey were great foils to Lowell's deepening isolation, and did a fair bit of emoting themselves - of particular note was the operation to repair Huey and the fantastic choice to have Dewey looking on with a palpable sense of fear and anxiety for his safety. I will admit that I spent a good amount of time trying to figure out how the machines were actually operated - the mark of an excellent design concept.

Silent Running deserves to be more than a footnote in history - obviously overshadowed by later, more serious sci-fi fare with better production values like Star Wars and Alien - but there's no doubt it was an inspiration to many films that came later. Although much too preachy (and I can now safely say that Joan Baez is not my cup of tea), Dern and his little buddies have great screen presence, and an admirably unexpected (if completely ludicrous) ending gets high marks for me. All in all, it's an important picture, not just as a time-capsule on the environmental ideology of the time, but a technical breakthrough - albeit a bumpy one.

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