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SILENT’s Not Golden

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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.

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SILENT's Not Golden, 8.0 out of 10 based on 1 rating
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10 comments to SILENT’s Not Golden

  • Edwin

    JOHNNY 5 !!!

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  • Gary McVey

    I’m awfully glad you brought this one up, LYT, as “Silent Running” has been a guilty pleasure of mine for, oh, 35+ years or so.

    Although I’m the last person to gloppily defend Joan Baez, I’ll take the contrarian position that the mournful sound of her songs fit the movie and the year it was released perfectly. (Okay, I’m no music critic).

    There was a despairing mood in the cultural air–Nixon had been re-elected; society wasn’t going to dissolve into modular love units after all. “Sleeper” would find it funny. “Soylent Green” and “The Forbin Project” wouldn’t.

    “Silent Running” is a melodrama inspired by the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. The plot makes no sense if you aren’t paranoid. Why would the evil govenment blow up harmlessly orbiting forests if the only cost of upkeep is paying the salary of a caretaker and a trio of robots? Trumbull’s “Brainstorm”, also a visually striking and underrated film of nine years later, would also suffer from simple minded hippie conspiracy plotting.

    I’ve got the DVD and wtch it every couple of years. The movie does have something.

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  • LYT

    Good to see you around here, Gary.

    I’ll give you that the songs may fit the year of release well. I’ll also give you an example of how such things can be a detriment — LADYHAWKE. Ever seen it?

    Medieval fantasy with Rutger Hauer. Released in the ’80s with a synth-pop score. When I saw it as a kid I barely even noticed the score, but now? It’s impossible to take seriously, and that’s 100% because of the soundtrack.

    The best movies either transcend the music trends of the moment, or, like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, capture them in a way that was once perfect hipness becomes perfect nostalgia. To me, SILENT RUNNING doesn’t quite do it.

    For the same reason I’ve been vehemently opposed to the new-agey pop songs in the Narnia movies. Way too “of the moment” for such timeless tales.

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  • ReJeKt

    Hi Gary!

    I do have a particular fondness for this genre, two of my favorite horror movies are “Alien” and “Event Horizon.” But I was never sure what to expect from Silent Running; whether it was classic or kitsch.

    It does sound pretty enjoyable though, so I’ll try to make some time for it. Even though now-a-days we’re too smart to think that a government or corporation would destroy viable space crops. Those irradiated plant seeds might be patentable.

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  • Gary McVey

    Hey Luke, Max, thanks for the welcome. Some other things to note about SR: In dollar terms it was a real cheapie, something that usually isn’t obvious while watching it–about $1 million, not a lot of money for a space drama even in 1972. THX-1138, which came out about six months before, was also a low-low budget film disguised as an epic vision (the fact that San Francisco’s shiny new BART was two years behind schedule allowed Lucas to film in tunnels and un-completed underground stations)

    Give it a shot, Max. Bruce Dern is dryly funny in a deadpan, low key way, sort of a cross between Trvis Bickle and Stephen Colbert.

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  • Sounds interesting…

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  • ReJeKt

    I watched Silent Running, and the movie it made me think of right off the bat was Idiocracy. This could function as an unofficial prequel companion, explaining where all the vegetation went, and why Freeman was so reluctant to go back to earth if it was in the mid-stages of that transformation.

    Bruce Dern has done a lot of great stuff over the decades so I’ve never really thought of him as the “old man” type. He’s had quite a few intense roles and this was on par. The music is jarring though.

    There’s not much to Silent Running. The allegories are pretty direct, but it’s enjoyable and doesn’t drag as much as I thought it would.

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  • LYT

    The idea that all of SILENT RUNNING is predicated on everyone on Earth feeding Gatorade to their plants does improve my enjoyment substantially, I must say.

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