Friday, March 25, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Silent Running (1972)


"It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth. And there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in; you could go to sleep in. And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air.  And there were things growing all over the place, not just in some domed enclosures blasted some millions of miles out into space."

- Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) remembers the long-gone beauties of Earth in Silent Running (1972).


Douglas Trumball's 1972 environmental space film, Silent Running opens with a series of gorgeous, extreme close-up views of colorful flowers in bloom, and the diverse animal life surrounding these plants: a snail, a turtle, and a toad, in order. 

As the camera pushes in towards the red, pink and yellow blossoms, we detect that the petals are wet and glistening with translucent water drops. 

What Trumball's probing camera gazes at -- in extreme proximity during the film's inaugural and majestic angles --  is a thriving ecosystem; an inter-connected biological system in perfect and serene balance.  The considerable size and prominence of these plants and animals in the frame makes audiences feel as though they are witnessing a whole planet in microcosm, a world in its multitudinous, assorted entirety.

The remainder of Silent Running, in a more nuanced fashion than it has often been given credit for by critics, audiences and ideologues, concerns another biological system, that belonging to technological man aboard the American Airlines Space Freighter, Valley Forge. 

Specifically, this technological ecosystem becomes imbalanced due to the acts of one man, the symbolically-named "Freeman" Lowell (Bruce Dern).  In short order, Lowell makes a life-and-death choice entirely consistent with the "Conservation" Pledge he has sworn to uphold, but it is a decision that he cannot possibly live with as a thinking, moral human being.

So while many critics and audiences seek to pigeonhole Silent Running alternately as a conservative warning against rampaging eco-terrorists (presumably Lowell in this case) or a bleeding heart, liberal ode to "tree hugging," the truth is, predictably, much more complicated. 

What Silent Running truly concerns is a man who does what he passionately believes is the right thing...and then almost immediately regrets the imbalance he has initiated in his own life, his own psychology, and aboard his ship. 

There's something very realistic and poignant in both Lowell's capricious actions and his guilty reactions to them.  Seldom in life are such grave decisions made and executed without real consequences for the decision-maker, and Silent Running is Lowell's tale in that regard.  He achieves something wonderful in one very important, nearly cosmic sense (the preservation of the Earth's last forest), but the price for his actions is his own sanity, and even more than that, his belief in himself as a moral and "good" human being.

On Earth, everywhere you go, the temperature is 75 degrees. Everything is the same; all the people are exactly the same. Now what kind of life is that?


Silent Running depicts the tale of gardener and astronaut Freeman Lowell.   Aboard the space freighter Valley Forge, he lovingly tends to the last surviving forests from planet Earth. 

At some point in the past, all the world's forests were transported into space aboard such ships (with monikers such as Sequoia and Berkshire). 

Lowell has been patiently waiting for the day when man will realize the errors of his ways, redeem the Earth, and recall the forests.  Lowell even harbors hopes of becoming the director of a new "Parks and Forests" system, since he alone among his shipmates appreciates the living forests and the fruit they bear.

However, when an announcement arrives from Earth authority, it is not what Freeman had expected or hoped for.  Instead of reclaiming the forests, the terrestrial governments have decided on "cutbacks."  The forests will be launched from the freighters and destroyed in nuclear detonations.  Nature itself is to be abandoned by the human race.

Lowell protests this final solution to his shipmates, but they are young, callow souls, who only want to return home, and could care less that the last forests on Earth are not "disposable" like so many elements of mankind's technological world. 

While watching forests explode in terrifying nuclear blasts, Lowell makes a rash decision: he protects one of his forest domes from a shipmate...killing the crew man in the process. 

Then Lowell repeats that fateful decision, trapping the last two crewman inside one of the Valley Forge's geodesic domes as it launches into deep space and is destroyed.

Now a murderer three-times over, Lowell goes on "silent running," and takes the Valley Forge through the turbulent rings of Saturn.  During the escape maneuver, one of the Valley Forge's small maintenance drones, number 3, is destroyed.

Separated from his home world and his fellow man, Lowell begins to lose his grip on sanity.  He re-programs the surviving drones, re-named Huey and Dewey, to keep him company.  They learn to play poker with him (and promptly beat him...) and they even become gardeners under Lowell's ministrations.

When Earth authorities finally catch up with Lowell, he realizes he has one last chance to save the sole surviving forest.  He tasks Dewey with tending to the forest -- for eternity -- and launches the forest dome on a trajectory for deepest space. 

Alone and guilty over his violent actions, Lowell then destroys himself, the malfunctioning Huey, and the Valley Forge itself.

She's never going to be able to see the simple wonder of a leaf in her hand. Because there's not going to be any trees. Now you think about that.

Silent Running paints a not very pretty picture of our immediate future, and thus qualifies as a dystopian vision.  On Earth, man has apparently populated the world to such a degree that two things have (presumably) occurred. 

In the first case, there is no room for plant life on the surface. In the second instance, plant life apparently can't even survive or thrive on the planet anymore because of factors such as pollution, or littering.  Thus space freighters carry the surviving forests to the stars with human custodians aboard.  Freeman Lowell, one such custodian, recalls the Presidential announcement that gave birth to the Valley Forge's mission during a voice-over flashback:

"On this first day of a new century we humbly beg forgiveness and dedicate these last forests of our once beautiful nation to the hope that they will one day return and grace our foul earth. Until that day may God bless these gardens and the brave men who care for them."

Although we never see Earth in the film, Silent Running's dystopia isn't all-together foreign to those of us living today.  We detect in the film's fictional future the end game of an environmental battle being waged on Earth and in America right now. 

On the one hand, there are those who want to preserve our planet's natural landscape.  These people believe that human beings are tasked -- in our short time here on Earth -- with responsibly maintaining that which God, or Mother Earth, has given us.  We are mere shepherds of the land until we can hand off this important care-taking duty to our children, the next generation. 

Then there are those who want to mine the land, drill the land, log the land, and extract from nature everything of possible value for business and personal profit.  These folks usually want to undertake such invasive action in the cheapest, quickest way possible, which ultimately equates to a disruption of the wild.  The goal is to make our lives more comfortable, and less expensive, but the means are destructive.

If you couple this latter approach of environmental management to the increasingly-real idea of a plastic, disposable culture, you arrive at the world imagined so powerfully by Trumball and Silent Running.  The astronauts aboard Valley Forge have never eaten real fruit or vegetables; depending instead on "synthetic" substances for sustenance.   They also don't see any value in the forests.  In an early scene, the crew men playfully and loudly ride motorized buggies into the garden domes, disrupting the habitat without a care, or even a thought.

Lowell attempts to remind his less insightful crew mates that the decision to nuke the forests because of budgetary shortfalls is not one that mankind can come back from.   Unlike the synthetic food supplies stacked in the ship's cargo hold, the forests are not replaceable.  Once the forests and their wildlife are gone, they're gone, and man is only left with what the president called "the foul Earth."

When Lowell decides to preserve the last forest, at the expense of his shipmates' lives, he is committing murder to be certain, but he is also, we should remember, upholding his sworn duty.  Not long ago, the President was asking God to bless "the brave men" who protected the gardens, and he honored their mission of conservation, even begging forgiveness for destroying the planet's natural beauty. 

More than that, Lowell in particular has sworn a very specific oath, "The Conservation Pledge," which reads: "I give my pledge as an American to save and faithfully to defend from waste the natural resources of my country -- its soil and minerals, its forests, waters, and wildlife."

In some sense, Lowell is honoring his word and the service he selected by rescuing the Earth's last forest preserve.  Yet to fulfill that oath, he commits the murder of his fellow man, and that is, simply, an immoral act.  In upholding his sworn duty, Lowell has violated another, equally as critical moral law.   His awareness of this violation begins to drive him crazy, and occasionally, Trumball jump cuts to images of the Lowell's dead crew, jump cuts that are meant to represent Lowell's memories veritably attacking his mind; reminding him of his culpability, of his inescapable guilt.

I believe that many viewers -- especially ideology-minded ones -- face a difficult journey with Silent Running because it proposes two ideas that we assume contradict each other, but don't, actually.  These are, A: the last forest should be saved, and Lowell is right to save it.  And B: it is wrong for Lowell to kill his crew mates to save the forest. 

Both A and B are true, and exist side-by-side in the film. 

Lowell accomplishes a good...very badly, if that makes sense.  And he is not just a wanton murderer, as his expressions of guilty conscience reveal.  Rather, he is a fully-dimensional character who both commits a great right and a great wrong.  He is a flawed, fallible human being.

Life is often this complex, but movies rarely are.  Silent Running asks viewers to countenance a man who wants to save the last forest of Earth, and does, but pays too a high a personal and moral price to achieve that noble end.

Silent Running is truly remarkable, I submit, because it also reveals how Lowell unbalances his own ecosystem -- the Valley Forge -- by his rash decision-making; just as the choice to nuke the forest domes was rash.  Before long, he's the fellow driving through the empty ship in a buggy -- in a pointed reflection of the earlier scene of his crew mates doing so -- and he wreaks just as much havoc as the other men did.  Not by running over the grass and the woods of the forest, but by colliding with and seriously damaging one of the expressive little drones. 

Another drone, Luey, also pays the price for Lowell's actions.  Lowell steers the ship through the rings of Saturn, and the drone is lost...killed, when yanked from the ship's hull.  With Luey dead, only two drones remain to maintain the ship. 

The ecosystem of the Valley Forge is -- again -- unbalanced by Lowell's choices.  He then keeps programming and re-programming the surviving maintenance drones to better serve his personal needs.  To serve as his doctors (for an impromptu surgery), to play games with him, to garden for him. 

This is a metaphor for man's treatment of nature: it must service us and adapt to us, even as our needs change and evolve.  Lowell is thus no better and no less capricious than the men down on Earth who were begging God for forgiveness one day and then nuking the last forests the next.

I've often discussed Silent Running with people who wonder what the last half of the film, involving the drones, really has to do with the first half of the film, about Lowell's decision to save the forest.  The answer is plain and straightforward: the last acts of the film reveal Lowell to be as  mercurial and controlling of his available resources (including the drones, ostensibly life-forms) as the people of the Earth were.  But in at least one instance, he certainly committed a "good" by saving the forest.

I thus submit the film is morally complex, rather than simple-minded or facile, as many reviews have argued.  Silent Running is not anti-technology either, because in the end, it is a man-made drone tending the forest, inside a man-made, technological shell. 

The forests would have died long ago without man's technology.  In some senses, that's the example of harmony man should and could emulate: building and re-building eco-systems in balance.   From its first evocative shot of nature in extreme-close-up harmony, Silent Running,concerns the way that man balances or unbalances his environs, whether on Earth or aboard the Valley Forge.  That's the takeaway message.

Written by Steve Bochco, Michael Cimino and Deric Washburn, Silent Running is one of those early-1970s, pre-Star Wars treasures that, unencumbered by blockbuster expectations, moves freely and imaginatively to tell its unique story in its own individual way. 

The movie is basically a one-man show, with Dern interacting, sometimes wildly, with the drones and even the forest.  Silent Running boasts its own sometimes-mellow, sometimes-hysterical rhythm too, a rhythm augmented by Joan Baez's musical performances of ""Rejoice in the Sun" and "Silent Running." 

I can't recall many times that folk music has accompanied grand outer space vistas (outside of the ironic use of "Benson, Arizona" in Dark Star [1975]), but the musical compositions and lyrics here strike just the right note of individual personality, sadness and wistfulness.  The songs ably support the film's episodic, elegiac, and eccentric story-telling style and structure.

Given Trumball's incredible talent and experience on 2001: A Space Odyssey, it probably goes without saying that the special effects sequences in Silent Running are extraordinary.  This effects work brilliantly holds up today, and the Saturn's ring sequence remains a highlight of the film.  Perhaps most importantly, the exterior views of the film's central location, Valley Forge, remain totally convincing, and totally realistic.  These sequences were later used -- over five years later -- in Battlestar Galactica.

In the end, Silent Running, I think, concerns man's lack of wisdom controlling the world and creatures around him.  That stance applies equally to nature and technology, given the film's narrative details.  And the movie even ends on a poetic apex, one not easily forgotten.  Freeman Lowell -- just minutes before committing suicide -- describes a youthful experience placing a note inside a bottle and tossing it into the ocean; wondering if anyone will ever find it and read the note.

As the film makes plain, Lowell has done the same thing on Valley Forge, but on a much grander scale.  He has sent a forest in a bottle of sorts, across the void of space...hoping someone will find it, and treasure it. 

It's up to future man -- hopefully on a better, more balanced track -- to find that lonely, lost bottle and remember the gift he has foolishly rejected and actively sought to destroy  The emotional folk songs sung by Baez speak of "sorrow running deep" at the loss of a great treasure, and the film concludes on the lonely image of a solitary drone -- with watering can -- tending to mankind's forsaken wards.  It is an image that suggests environment and technology going on  and on, but without man.

So Silent Running is a film about a world of "no more beauty," and "no more imagination,"  in which "nobody cares" about what God or Mother Nature gave us to care for.  But the film leaves open the possibility of hope that it won't always be that way.

Or, as Freeman Lowell says, "Don't you think it's time that someone should have a dream again?"

9 comments:

  1. Excellent look at this one. Interesting selection of Bruce Dern for this. A fine actor, indeed, but one associated with villains, brutes, and not very bright characters early on in his career. Indeed, the same year he was Freeman Lowell, he turned in what to many is his most hated role of villainy. That of Asa Watts from THE COWBOYS -- the guy who kills John Wayne most viciously.

    Still, I think his role in SILENT RUNNING helped to get him out of that pigeon-hole. His characters from the 70s really began to expand. I love his bad/good guy bit as the detective in Walter Hill's THE DRIVER. Great analysis on this sci-fi film, my friend. Thanks.

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  2. Thanks for a thoughtful review of an old favorite.

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  3. Anonymous11:26 PM

    The models use in "Silent Running" would form the basis of Trumball's model of the Earthship Ark in the television series, "The Starlost".

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  4. Boy this really sounds good. I guess I need to get that back on my watch list.

    I wish it was on Blu-Ray because I bet those images and close-ups would look sharp.

    Having said that, I'm embarrased to say that I have not seen this film and I've come close to buying it several times.

    Anyway, it sounds pretty interesting and I loved your thorough look at the picture.

    BAsed on your analysis, this film, with all of the latest technology, and I'm not referring to crap CGI, but film qualities etc... I bet a remake of the film could look like something special a la Sunshine.

    I loved those scnes in Sunshine inside the garden. All the best, SFF

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  5. Late 70s/early 80s. I watched it one night with me Mom on local TV. Lights turned out, we sat and cried buckets at the end. One of those life memories I will never forget.

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  6. Hi everybody,

    Le0pard13: You do a great job enumerating the Dern mystique, I think. Many people consider him to be playing a villain in "Silent Running" too: a crazed, out-of-his mind, eco-terrorist. Some think that his violent advocacy of the forest equates to, essentially madness. I feel, however, that Dern also does a great job of capturing the character's sense of guilt over his actions. But he's a controversial choice for this role; no doubt.

    Jdigriz: I'm glad you enjoyed the review; and Silent Running is an old favorite of mine, as well.

    Anonymous: You're right - Trumball created a variant of these freighters for the Earthship Ark in The Starlost. The model there is gorgeous too, but wasn't filmed as carefully and beautifully, making it look somewhat less realistic.

    SFF: I think you'll really like Silent Running. It's definitely a product of its time, as all films are; but Silent Running feels that way a little more because of the Joan Baez songs. Still, this is one you should definitely check out!

    Hi David: You're right to bring up the emotional aspect of the film. To think of the last forest -- gone from Earth forever -- well, crying buckets is perfectly appropriate.

    Thank you all for great comments on a sci-fi classic (And another dystopian vision!)

    best,
    JKM

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  7. Hi JKM;

    I'm late to the party on this but I come with a platter of tasty tidbits from a contemporary interview with Trumbull from Castle of Frankenstein.

    1. The film is a response to 2001. DT thought SK's vision too cold ("HAL is the most human character") and wanted a more human future.

    2. The spaceship's exterior textures are almost all Aurora model-tank hubcaps!

    3. All of the human-character actors except Dern were difficult to work with (because DT was a neophyte director) but they were supposed to come off as unlikable so he felt that it worked out OK. He had great experiences working with Dern and the four amputees who played the drones.

    Great analysis as usual.

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  8. Hi DLR:

    Thank you for providing some good context on Silent Running there. I can definitely see how Silent Running is a more human, natural, less antiseptic look at the future than Kubrick's 2001. Side-by-side, the films make for an interesting comparison.

    I love the miniatures, and I love Aurora kits, so maybe that explains my passion for these Amerian Airlines space freighters. I've always wished for a model kit of this particular ship.

    And I think you're right about the actors -- they're supposed to be unlikable, and that's very much how they come off.

    Great comment, my friend, and thank you for the kind words about the review.

    best,
    JKM

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  9. Anonymous11:20 AM

    One of my very favorites--I remember reading the novelization in elementary school long before I knew it was a film, and recall the unfavorable reviews it received at the time (quite a few folks didn't even understand that it was in space; they thought it was a SUBMARINE movie!)

    I have seen it many times and always cry at the end.

    Tom Epps
    US Navy

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