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Silent Running

****
1973

‘…a sombre, often pompous story, but it’s also got offbeat charm…’

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.

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  1. I love this movie every way it’s possible to love it. Though it had a bit of a TV Movie feel to it, Bruce Dern was Oscar-worthy, as was Douglas Trumbull and his effects (the drones blew me away to smithereens – never cared more for movie robots than here). He really deserved more of a career than he got. And don’t get me started on Peter Schickele’s soundtrack!

    • Never cared for movie robots more; that’s exactly how I feel about it. I think it partly comes from the underplying; Lowell is very offhand with them most of the time, and yet Huey and Dewey seem pretty vital to his survival. Who needs an Oscar when your film is this good; glad to hear from another fan!

  2. I’ve never seen this! Sounds intriguing, though… Except for the part where I spoiled the ending for myself by reading through the comments 😅

    • Well, watching it this weekend, the plot hole is the size of the sun, but who cares? A bit messy compared to 2001, but makes a point and doesn’t require any explanation….

  3. “Silent Running” holds a fond place in my heart – I believe it’s the first movie I ever watched in a theater without my parents. Unlike other films of its time, it still looks good. I didn’t have a problem with the sunlight / inverse square law plot device. Most audience members would have missed it, I know I did in the 1970s at the age of 12.

    Trumbell’s work was beyond influential. Images of the geodesic spaceship “Valley Forge” made their way into the ill-fated (and Harlan Ellison penned) Canadian TV show “The Starlost” and was cited in the “Battlestar Galactica” vs “Star Wars” legal battle between Universal and 20th Century Fox. Trumbull went on to do special effects for “ST:TMP”, “Close Encounters”, and “Blade Runner.” The guy was amazing.

    Say what you about “Silent Running,” it’s as much a turning point in cinema as “2001” and forecasts (!) climate change issues we see today. Plus it was my introduction to Bruce Dern. I will always love “Silent Running.”

    • A pleasure to read this, many thanks. Even with flaws, I love this film, it was a game-changer growing up. Trumbull’s effects are a quantum leap forward, and many of them still hold up. Vaguely remember reading about The Starlost; will investigate that. Dern is just right for a tricky role too. Saw this on the Bbc about the same age you did, and feel much the same. We were the first to get and understand the importance of climate change, and this film is responsible! Great comment!

      • And that’s part of what makes it special for me; Crow T Robot is very uch a role model for me, so I’ve disposed to love the film that inspired his creation….

  4. I’m thinking a remake would be good, but one of the pods would have SKippy, Flipper, George and Willo being looked after by the magic robots, maybe Lassie could be in there too. Timothy Chalamet can be the Bruce Dern guy, he looks bonkers enough. And they would have to fight off a stowaway leprechaun resulting in damage (fixable) that sends them off into the unknown.

    • This is SUCH a great idea for a film, money in the bank! If we could get a magic horse in there too, and yes, Charmalet would be ideal in the Dern role, need to check with Alex about the Lep******, might be too personal for him to participate in…

  5. Never heard of this.
    And without a reboot, is it actually a good movie? I judge all my movies now by whether they’ve been remade and rebranded to conform to modern and cultural norms.

  6. In spite of not liking Bruce Dern one bit, I watched this movie a long while back. Loved Huey and Dewey and cried at the end when Dewey was left alone floating off into the unknown. One of the movies responsible for my eco-warrior mien, but ineffective as all my self-sufficient veggies I tried to grow died a horrible death. Cool review, and that’s the end of a long Yep.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one to notice this strange brain freeze. It boggles the mind….will return to read your review, thanks! I think it’s lasted…

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