Monday, January 2, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #156 – Silent Running (1972, dir. Douglas Trumbull)

I’m going to give you a number of good reasons to watch Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 science fiction epic/environmental cautionary tale Silent Running, and then I’m going to give you one reason to avoid it. The reason to avoid it is easily remedied, so read on. Douglas Trumbull’s name may sound familiar to you, and if so, you may be a fan of either 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Wars, because Trumbull was one of the main special effects wizards on both those landmark films. Reason one to see this film: many of the special effects Trumbull utilized in Star Wars are seen in Silent Running. Thus if you love Star Wars, Silent Running is essential viewing. Aside from a young and alarmingly handsome Bruce Dern, the main characters in the film are a pair of droids called Huey and Dewey (Louie gets lost in space early on) who bear a remarkable resemblance to R2D2. They are totally humanoid and adorable and would be the subject of intense crossover marketing efforts in today’s world. In addition the general feel of the space ships and the outer space scenes are reminiscent of things we would see five years later in Star Wars (or vice-versa as the case may be).
The plot, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. It involves a mission in the future (!?) to save the last specimens of flora and fauna that once populated the earth, by sending them into
space in what amounts to gigantic greenhouses. The Earth has become overrun with man’s presence and the only forests left are shot into space with a small crew to care for them. Unfortunately the crew soon get the word that it has been decided to destroy the remaining forests and return the giant spaceships to industrial use. The small crew callously begin the atomic detonation, when the ship’s lone scientist Freeman Lowell, played with chest-thumping idealism by Bruce Dern, decides he cannot allow this to happen. In a moment of clarity he kills his crew mates, hijacks the last forest and heads off to the far side of Saturn. The second great reason to watch Silent Running is the deadly serious environmental warning. It seemed earnest in a “save the whales” kind of way in 1972, but with the reality of Global Warming as we understand it now, as well as the rapid diminution of species from our global roster, the message is painfully relevant and prescient.
Reason three for loving Silent Running is Bruce Dern’s amazing performance. Falling early in his history as a leading man, Dern, who had toiled for over a decade as a bit player in low-budget movies, seems to squirm a bit with the weight of the film squarely on his shoulders, yet he performs admirably within the confines of a script that doesn’t always hold water. We do believe in his love for the environment and in his conflicted feelings at having dispatched his fellow astronauts. In a career that has had many fits and starts, Silent Running is one of the clear highlights for Dern. He is the sole human star, and the camera is rarely off his face. His character shows an interesting arc of growth, from ideologue to self-doubting loner, finally to a man resigned to his own failures, yet slightly optimistic for the future.
Reason Four is the wonderful ending, where Dern, back in contact with humanity, realizes he must send the last forest off into space without him, and we are left with a touching scene of the last remaining droid caring for the last remaining plants and animals as the last remaining dome floats off into space and Joan Baez intones a lovely, environmentally themed ballad which SCREEEEEECH!!!!!! Did I forget to mention Joan Baez? I feel I can’t honestly recommend this movie without mentioning the role Joan Baez plays in the soundtrack. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Joan Baez and think her place in music history is cemented ten times over. However, at three points in this movie she invades the soundtrack with some syrupy, overly-earnest balladry that unfortunately acts as a total nails-on-chalkboard moment in the film. It stops the action and nearly derails the entire thing. It’s hard to imagine what they could have been thinking, but it goes to prove the fragility of cultural temperament. Something that once seemed so righteous and appropriate is capable of literally stopping the forward movement of the plot and dating a movie beyond retribution. That is the one thing that might keep you away from the movie.
Silent Running isn’t one of “the great” movies, or even one of “the great Science Fiction movies.” However, it is without question an important link in the chain of Science Fiction movie history. If you want to fully grasp the link between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars you must see Silent Running.

-          Paul Epstein

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