The future isn’t what it used to be. Yes, there’ll be spaceships, and robots, but the climate is the same all around the world, the people and places are all the same, and there’s no room for nature. Anxiety about climate change has presumably given way to climate control, and Earth no longer has any need of nature’s checks and balances. The surviving flora and fauna, as well as birds, rabbits and more, have been packed off into a number of doomed spaceships, but are surplus to requirements, and when the crew get the order comes to destroy the domes and come home, only one man, Freeman Lowell, decides to make a stand against the authorities and honour his conservation pledge.
Played by Bruce Dern, Lowell has a messianic zeal about environmental issues; indeed, when the end credits roll, it’s worth speculating that the death toll caused by Lowell’s actions must be pretty high. But rarely has killing in the name of nature seemed so defensible; with our heritage of plants and nature at stake, it’s easy enough to root for Lowell. Silent Running, co-written by Michael Cimino, is a story of survival, where the protagonist’s quest is simply to put his precious cargo out of reach of those who seek to destroy it. Lowell achieves his goal, but at some cost; the shockingly downbeat ending of Silent Running cast a pall over my childhood viewings.
After his breakout effects work on Kubrick’s 2001, Douglas Trumbull used his experience to create a great space-trucker look for Silent Running, influencing everything from Alien to Moon. Filming indoors inside a US aircraft carrier, there’s a sense of size and scale frequently missing elsewhere, and the designs for costume and tech don’t jar. Sure, this is a sombre, often pompous story, but it’s also got offbeat charm; the way that Lowell talks to his drones is always amusing, as is the scene in which he teaches them to play cards. Indeed, Lowell’s mentorship of the drones proves to be his salvation; like Chance in Being There, sole survivor Dewy is left to follow Voltaire’s old dictum ‘one must cultivate one’s one garden.’
Silent Running is well assembled, even if there are some plot holes you could drive an aircraft carrier through; it beggars belief that Lowell wouldn’t imagine sunshine to have an essential role in keeping his precious cargo in bloom. But as a wake-up call, Silent Running is super-effective; if this film doesn’t make you question the sagacity of dicking around with mother nature, nothing will.