SILENT RUNNING is one of those sci-fi films that I think more people know about than have actually seen. I’ve certainly been aware of it a long time, but only finally got around to seeing it last night as an on-demand rental from Netflix. A good option, that, but then I’m more used than some to watching DVDs on a computer. You have to, as a critic — so many screeners don’t work right on regular players and require a computer program to process.
As this is a film from 1972, starring a 36 year-old Bruce Dern who’s now in his seventies, I consider the statute of limitations on spoilers to have expired. Not that you couldn’t guess the ending pretty easily once the story gets going.
The movie has a great premise, but the execution doesn’t live up to the potential. In a future where Earth has been ravaged by eco-disaster (though everyone who lives there still sounds reasonably happy, from all the information we’re given), spaceships that maintain collections of soil samples and bio-domes filled with forest life both animal and vegetable are drifting around the solar system, awaiting the day when they’ll be called home and used to re-seed the Earth’s environment.
[If this sounds similar to the plot of WALL*E, bingo. It's a very direct influence on director Andrew Stanton.]
One of these vast ships is (somewhat improbably) maintained by a crew of four humans and three robot drones that appear to be the ancestors of the “Gonk” Power Droids in Star Wars. Three of these guys — played by Ron Rifkin, Cliff Potts, and Jesse Vint — are just regular joes, who like to screw around having races around the spaceship corridors in their little electric carts. The fourth, Freeman Lowell (Dern) is a total eco-hippie who tends the forests, makes a big show of eating free-range organic food that he grew himself, and chastises his crewmates for enjoying convenience over nature. When he isn’t in a worksuit, he has a propensity for wearing monk-like robes.
Still, his shipmates humor him, right up until they receive new orders. The project is to be junked, and the ships recommissioned for commercial purposes. To provide a rather drastic break from the original mission, the forest domes are to be jettisoned with small nuclear bombs inside of them, evaporating all evidence. This doesn’t sit well with the allegorically named Freeman, who jettisons his coworkers instead, keeping his favorite forest attached while feigning mechanical failure to the powers that be. Drifting deeper into space, running out of options, he begins to lose his mind, renaming the mechanical drones Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and treating them as his best friends.
It’s a good story, but one that I think would have had even more impact if there were no Earth to come back to. By all indications, however, Earth, while not what it once was, is a place with a constant temperature of 75 degrees and 100% employment where people are mostly happy. This makes Freeman’s quest a bit more futile than it might otherwise seem. If he were truly the last hope, with the last remnants of the planet, the stakes would be high to more than just him personally. Dern makes the character work, and it’s a revelation to those of us who think of him only as an old-man type.
The direction is by Douglas Trumbull, special effects artist on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, a.k.a. the greatest movie ever made, so it’s no surprise that the models here look great, though I take issue with a commenter on Trumbull’s imdb page who says his effects haven’t dated at all. Maybe not so much in 2001, but here, yes, they have just a bit, the biggest issue being the variability between whether the stars outside of any given window are static or moving. But even Star Trek: The Next Generation didn’t get that right 100% of the time. And Huey, Dewey, and Louie don’t move mechanically, exactly — there are little people inside those costumes, and they walk like humans rather than stiff machines.
That said, the effects don’t make or break the movie. One aspect that does come close to breaking the movie, though, is the soundtrack, which boasts some ridiculously awful Joan Baez songs. Imagine the worst ’70s eco-tragedy hippie songs you can possibly conceptualize, and you’re close. That cheeseball song from the old Gil Gerard Buck Rogers TV show is masterful by comparison.
I guess what really feels like it’s missing here is what came so naturally to 2001 (and to a lesser extent, Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS): that sense of being a tiny speck in the vastness of space, the drive to continue the mission even as you realize your own relative insignificance, and the madness of loneliness grown exponentially bigger when you realize that there is no other life for millions of miles. Trumbull likes to use close-ups more than wide shots, and even when he gives us spaceship exteriors, he tends to show sections of the ship rather than the whole thing adrift in the darkness…save the very last shot of the ship, which implies that only then does he want to emphasize the abyss. Yet the poster, and the movie’s tagline, as seen in the picture above, suggest an altogether different approach, agoraphobic as opposed to claustrophobic. My memory could be very faulty here, but I seem to recall THE BLACK HOLE capturing some of that feeling. Haven’t seen it in years, though, and I don’t entirely trust my childhood self.
The screenplay is an interesting collaboration: DEER HUNTER director Michael Cimino and his regular collaborator Deric Washburn did a draft, and then Steven Bochco, of TV cop show fame, did another. In the end I think the Bochco sensibility (close-ups, drama with quirky humor) won out over the Cimino style (epic, slow, widescreen vistas, risk of boredom).
So I know this is usually taboo to say, but…I’d like to see a remake! There’s more good here than bad, with the potential for something epic, and that’s why the missteps that are made are so aggravating. The idea of this movie is better than the thing itself, which probably explains why it’s better known than seen.