Great Films: Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1972, USA)

Douglas Trumbull was one of the special effects supervisors who worked on Stanley Kubrick’s bloated sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), helping to give that film its visionary and prophetic set design and futuristic visuals. He would later go on to work on such cinematic stunners as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Blade Runner (1982), but before those he directed Silent Running, a criminally underlooked masterpiece of science fiction filmmaking, and one whose understated warmth tinged with melancholy lingers in the mind for a considerable time.

From a script co-written by Mike Deer Hunter Cimino and Steven NYPD Blue Bochco, Silent Running is set aboard the Valley Forge, one of four large space freighters orbiting around Saturn, in an unnamed year in the future. Back on Earth, all plant life has been made extinct, and the only remaining specimens are being kept alive onboard large greenhouse-like domes attached to the spaceships, tended to by a crew of four, whose number includes botanist Freeman Lowell. He is shown to be much more concerned with the importance of their mission than the others, who are too used to their sterile, bland existences back on Earth to care about their endangered cargo.

Orders arrive from Earth; the cargo is to be jettisoned and destroyed in order for the ships to be returned to commercial duty. The rest of the crew is keen to follow orders, but Lowell the botanist finds himself unable to abandon the last plant life known to humanity and instead contrives to hijack the ship and the domes, thus saving the precious cargo from extinction. In doing so, though, he finds that he has to kill the other crew members, leaving him alone aside from three small robotic drones.

The film obviously carries an ecological message; Lowell is able to kill his fellow crew members for he feels that saving plant-life for future generations of people is much more important. The use of slow folksy Joan Baez songs on the soundtrack emphasises the rather hippyish outlook on display here, completely opposite to Kubrick’s use of grand orchestral music in 2001. Indeed, although Silent Running is in many respects just as visually impressive as 2001, the grandstanding is for an altogether different effect: Kubrick emphasised the poetry and beauty of technology, but Trumbull, like Tarkovsky would do the following year in his Solyaris (1972), uses it to juxtapose the beauty of the natural world on top of it. It is also tempting to draw parallels to Werner Herzog here too, though I don’t want to push my luck too far.

Another comparison point with 2001 is the difference between the interactions between humans and machines in the two films. The drones in Silent Running have a certain cuteness and fallibility to them, making them feel somewhat human. In one of the film’s best scenes, the now solitary Lowell reprograms the drones to be able to play poker with him, with some difficulty at first but they soon begin to cotton on. With no family of his own, they almost become his children, beautifully underlined in the film’s final scenes where one of the drones uses a child’s watering can to tend to the dome’s plants. Contrast that human-like warmth to the icy coldness of HAL 9000.

At the centre of the film is a truly remarkable performance by Bruce Dern, a career-best for the seasoned actor. His painstaking care for ‘his’ gardens is contrasted to his general disdain for his fellow crew, in particular his fierce arguments with them over the importance of preserving their attatched floating paradises. The crew of course are swiftly dealt with, and from this point onwards it is a one-man show, and his slow descent into a kind of derangement from solitude, saved only by his attatchment to the mute drones which he knows cannot be mutual, is a wonder to behold.

Danny Boyle’s recent film Sunshine (2007) undoubtedly used Silent Running as an inspiration, in particular the large tree-lined oxygen gardens found aboard the Icarus spacecraft. In that film, the stakes are high – the very survival of life on Earth, faced with the death of the sun. In Silent Running, it may appear that Lowell’s actions are of less significance; after all, the other crew members are perfectly happy to return to an Earth without plants, trees and flowers. But for Lowell, as well as for Trumbull, his self-appointed mission is just as important; to enable future generations of children to be able to stare at a leaf from a tree, in amazement at the beautiful simplicity of nature.

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