MOVIE REVIEW: “Silent Running” (1972)

It is the future! The year 2008! In this far distant tomorrow which took place nine years ago, the earth has been completely defoliated. Such nature as remains has been relegated to some habitats on six huge American Airlines space freighters, orbiting Saturn. It’s an amazingly expensive, horribly boring undertaking, so fortunately all of that takes place offscreen before the movie begins. The bad news? Joan Baez sings.

Once that unpleasantness is out of the way (Seriously: why did anyone anywhere ever like Joan?) we find ourselves on the Valley Forge, one of the freighters in the fleet. These ships are operating on a sub-skeleton crew of just four people, rotated through in six-month shifts. Twitchy self-righteous hippie Bruce Dern has done sixteen straight hitches! He’s an environmentalist, you see, and he’s taken it upon himself to preserve the last forests. The crew – blue collar types – ride him kind of hard because of his eccentricities, but one of them actually kind of stands up for him a little bit. Dern doesn’t really seem to notice this kindness much.

The word comes through from earth: the program has been cancelled. The crews are to eject the domes, blow ‘em up with thermos-sized nukes (“Termos-nuclear weapons?” Huh? Huh?), and return their ships to commercial service. This they then do. There’s lots of shots of cute, happy little bunnies that are about to be atomized intercut with them setting up the bombs and cutting the domes loose. It’s hardly subtle.

Bruce wigs out and kills the guy who was nice to him with a shovel, then he launches and nukes another of the domes with the remaining crew members aboard. He has the neat little robots (Huey, Dewey and Louie, no, really!) chuck a bunch of supplies out one of the airlocks, and sends of a fake panicky message to the rest of the fleet, babbling about an explosion and the rest of the crew is dead, and blah blah blah. He fires the engines, and the Valley Forge moves through the umbra of Saturn.

The other ships aren’t close enough to rescue him – of course they don’t realize he doesn’t want to be rescued – and they point out that his course will take him through the rings, whereupon his ship will probably be destroyed.

Anderson: “These ships weren’t meant to shoot the rapids. There’s no way to reach you before that happens. Your name is Lowell, is it?”

Dern: “Yes.”

Anderson: “Lowell, you might want to think about…”

Dern: “Taking my own life?”

Anderson: “Yes.”

Dern: “Oh, no sir, I don’t think I could ever do a thing like that.”

Anderson: [long pause] “You’re a very brave American, Lowell.”

Dern: “Thank you, sir. [turns off radio] I think I am.”

Having gotten messed up in the fight to kill the only guy on the crew who was nice to him, Dern reprograms the “Drones” to perform surgery on him. It’s a mildly freaky scene. Afterwards they hit the rings, and one of the drones is lost to space.

From this point in, the movie is pretty dull. Fairly clever in places, but pretty dull just the same. We get a lot of scenes of Dern teaching the surviving drones to take care of the plants in the one remaining dome, playing cards with them (They cheat), and trying to interact with them on a friendly level, though this is clearly shown to be a dead end: they simply aren’t human, though they appear to be mostly sapient.

Dern struggles with flashbacks and guilt during all this, and has the drones bury the body of the guy he killed with the shovel – he can’t bear to do it himself. He attempts to say a prayer/give a eulogy for the guy before they throw him in the hole (Dern can’t bear to say “put him in the hole” either), but he makes a totally ineffectual hash of this as well, and kind of breaks down. It’s a fairly raw scene, and genuinely kind of moving. It’s one of two truly “Bruce Dern” scenes in the film, if you know what I mean.

Eventually he hits one of the remaining drones with a dune buggy while tear-assing around the cargo bay (It’s a BIG ship!) and cripples it. There’s a kind of neat, kind of touching scene of him trying to repair it – again, ineffectually – while the other drone looks on.

The forest starts to die, and Lowell can’t figure it out, though it’s obviously because they’re so far away from the sun that the plants can’t photosynthesize (Stupid hippie!). One of the other ships from the cargo fleet contacts him and tells him they’re a rescue party. Lowell’s been on his own for months at this point, maybe a year. The absolute best-acted scene in the movie is when the rescue ship attempts to contact him on the radio, and he literally can not comprehend what’s going on. This is the other truly “Bruce Dern” scene.

He realizes that he’s screwed – though of course he never really had a plan anyway, he’s just been reacting all along – but he (Finally) figures out the light thing, and sets the dome up with a bunch of billion-watt bulbs, and has the remaining unscathed drone take care of it in perpetuity. Speaking to the crippled drone, he says “When I was a kid I put my name and address in a bottle and threw it into the sea. I never knew if anyone found it.“ He ejects the dome, and as it rockets away from the freighter, Dern blows up the Valley Forge with some leftover nukes.

The final scene is the dome floating through space, tended by the lone remaining drone, while Joan Baez sings.

The End

OBSERVATIONS

This one didn’t really hold up as well in reality as it did in my memories. I was fascinated by this movie long before I actually saw it, mainly for the radical spaceship design and the cool clunky, functional look of the technology on it, as seen in stills in various magazines and books. When I finally watched it, I was a bit disappointed. The message was fairly obvious, but on the bright side the morality is somewhat more ambiguous than you’d get if this film were made today. Interestingly so, really.

For starters, Lowell is a mess. He kills three guys in cold blood – one of whom they make a point of showing us was married, and had a kid – hijacks a ship, and runs away into the night. He feels really badly about this, of course, but pushes that aside mostly and considers himself to be an American hero. He’s very out of touch with reality. He’s been on these ships for eight years, and when word comes in that there’s some big news coming up, he’s convinced they’re going to bring the forests back to earth, even when everyone else knows full well it’s going to be budget cuts. He won’t listen. He’s monomaniacal. He’s not all that bright. He can reprogram a droid and pilot a freighter, but he can’t figure out that plants need light to live.

I can not stress that enough: He’s an environmentalist who can’t figure out that plants need light to live!

He has more of an emotional relationship with three robots – which the movie shows us again and again is a dead end – than he did with the humans on the crew. He has all this advanced technology and robot slave labor, and he can’t think of anything to do with it apart from teach the drones how to play cards.

Most tellingly, he rails on early in the movie about how awful earth is now that nature is gone: Everywhere you go on earth, it’s 75 degrees. There’s no more poverty, everyone has a job, no one goes hungry anymore. He says these things as though they’re bad. I’ll grant the thin description we get sounds a bit like living in a shopping mall, but, hey, I’m a geek: that’s kind of a dream of mine anyway. That or a World’s Fair. (Preferably the 1967 World’s Fair. That’d be sweet!) My point being that while the utter destruction of nature is clearly a bad thing, the whole ‘full employment/no poverty/no hunger’ thing sounds pretty good. Curiously, he never makes any scientific arguments – presumably because he doesn’t know any – and bases his whole righteously indignant argument on emotionalism and nostalgia.

I think this is deliberate. I think we’re supposed to identify with Lowell, but I don’t think we’re really supposed to like him all that much. I mean, they hired Bruce Dern to play him, a guy who was primarily known for playing twitchy psychopaths up to that point. (Arguably he does that again here.) I think the script is deliberately addressing the human cost of the story: four people and two drones ultimately die, and Lowell is a pretty sad excuse for a hero. At no point does he ever have a clue about what he’ll do next. In fact, rather than rallying on earth trying to gain support for re-forestation, which might have accomplished something, he’s been hiding out in space for nearly a decade, dreaming his dreamy little dreams…the more you look at the movie, the more of a wreck you realize the guy is.

Bruce Dern plays this well. He’s effectively onscreen alone for 45 minutes, and while some scenes (Such as playing cards with the crew, or playing cards with the Drones) are stagey and ring false, the scenes of him retreating into himself, and daydreaming of living on a verdant earth that must never have existed in his lifetime are very well done. There are face actors like, say, Tom Hanks or Patrick Stewart, where you can kind of see what’s going on inside their heads. With Lowell, it’s clear that there really isn’t much going on behind his face, and what there is he’s trying to suppress.

It’s an interesting choice. Today they’d make it all jingoistic and “Oooh-Rah! Nature! Yeah!” It’s kind of ballsy to have a protagonist who’s clearly a bad man doing a good thing in a very bad way.

The visuals aren’t as good as I remembered, though this film provides a very obvious ‘missing link’ in the evolution of special effects. 2001 (Douglas Trumble)–> Silent Running (Trumble, John Dykstra) –> Star Wars (Dykstra). You can see very strong elements of those two other films in this one. If these ships look familiar, it’s because stock footage of them turned up in Battlestar Galactica (1978) as the “Agro Ships” that provided all the Rag Tag Fleet’s food. The design is beautifully ugly, no Star Trek sleekness here.

There are six ships, by the way: The Yellowstone, the Arcadia, the Blue Ridge, the Mohave, the Berkshire, and the Valley Forge. The Berkshire is clearly the flagship of the fleet.

In the beginning of the film, we hear a voice over by the American President delivering an address, “In this first year of a new century” explaining sending the forests off into space. We’re later told the program’s been running eight years, which makes it 2008 or early 2009. It’s never stated, but it’s pretty obvious that the program is being cancelled as a consequence of a presidential election back home. This is a very American movie. Everyone in the film is a yank. There’s not even any token internationalism (I find that oddly refreshing). It’s implied – but again, unstated – that the other nations of earth didn’t even attempt to save anything when they deforested.

Logically, not much of this makes sense: Why ship the forests off to Saturn? Why not just plunk ‘em in Earth Orbit, or, failing that, somewhere closer to the sun? Why do they need the freighters anyway? The domes have their own life support and gravity, and they evidently can operate indefinitely on their own, so why not just cut ‘em loose? (Though to be fair, Lowell thinks this is a solution, but he’s hardly the most sane knife in the fountain) Why was the whole world deforested? Dialog implies a massive environmental re-engineering project that was clearly successful, but they say there’s not so much as a blade of grass left on earth, and I think we’re supposed to take that literally. Why? Presumably this is overpopulation nonsense, but then there’s a lot of muddy thinking in the ecolologicalism of this movie.

There’s some interesting implications in the movie that they never develop: these freighters are HUGE, and there’s six of ‘em, probably more in commercial service elsewhere. How big of a space industry to you need to justify ships this large, and this many of ‘em? There must have been MASSIVE offworld colonies!

Is 2008 too early for this movie? In hindsight, yeah, but at the time, Apollo was still going on, and people took space colonization to be a fait acompli. I mean, look at the massive space stations and lunar cities of 2001 (1968)!

The ship scenes were filmed on a World War II Essex-Class aircraft carrier that had been decommissioned, and was waiting for a trip to the breakers. Just a month after filming ended, the ship no longer existed. That said, we don’t really see much of it – five or six rooms, one hallway, the hangar deck. They give a sense of massive size, but they don’t utilize it much. They had this giant ship at their disposal, but they didn’t have enough budget to really utilize it, I presume.

In the original script, the ship wasn’t called the “Valley Forge.” When the Navy gave ‘em permission to film on the carrier – the USS Valley Forge (CV-45) they decided to rename it in the script.

I once read an interview in Starlog with Douglas Trumble who talked about the original script for this movie. Initially it wasn’t even remotely intended to be an ecological fable, but rather was a first contact tale: the ship is about to be retired and scrapped, and the captain is about to be put out to pasture. He steals the ship and heads off into space, hanging out with his three robot buddies and gradually going a bit nuts. Eventually he receives a signal that he realizes is from aliens. The ship’s owners, meanwhile, are chasing him, and he goes into ‘silent running mode’ (like on a sub) to make it hard to find him. The rest of the movie is a race against time to contact the aliens before his own people get him. Ultimately, he sends one of the drones out in a pod on a course to intercept the aliens, and he’ll communicate with them through the robot. The cops bust in and kill him with a flamethrower, however, so the little Drone, not knowing what to do, just pulls out a snapshot of itself with the other two ‘bots and the captain – a ‘family photo.’ The aliens are confused and don’t know what to make of this, though it’s obviously rather poignant. For some reason.

The End.

Growing up, my more Right Wing friends disliked this movie for obvious reason. However he more I watched it, the more I realized this isn’t quite the propaganda it’s purported as. Rather, it’s an entirely different kind of propaganda. It’s not “Freeman Lowell is an ecological messiah who dies to save nature itself,” but rather “Things have come to a sorry pass when we have to rely on ineffectual losers like this.” The movie is interesting because it isn’t about the war to save the biosphere – that war was lost long before the movie even starts – this is just the shouting that takes place afterwards. This isn’t a terribly pro-green movie, it’s more like a criticism of the environmental movement of the 1960s/70s.

If you go at it from that angle, it’s pretty interesting, if a bit dull. If you go at it from the straight-ahead angle that pretty much everyone, left or right or indifferent, takes on it, it’s really just dull.

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