directed by Douglas Trumbull
starring Starring Bruce Durn, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin and Jesse Vint
MVD Entertainment Group
The period between 1968’s 2001 and 1977’s Star Wars represented a major shift in science fiction filmography. Prior to this cataclysmic shift sci-fi was cheap and exploitative, filled with cold war morality plays, bug-eyed monsters and screaming women in need of rescue by studdly space cowboys. Afterwards, sci-fi became more thoughtful and plausible, and most importantly it became more respected both by film makers and and viewers. Silent Running sits in that saddle point with an ecological morality tale of the last vegetation on earth banished to a few domes of randomly preserved fruit trees and vegetables. Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) carefully nurtures his garden while the rest of the crew plays golf cart demo derby; they generally hates anything touchy-feely. Then the call comes: ditch the flowers and return to earth. Freeman revolts, and flees with his vegetation to the far reaches of the solar system. Ridiculous as this may sounds, in the context of the film, it’s a touching tribute to life as we and Freeman once knew it.
Like all fiction this film is a product of its time. A small coterie of tree huggers struggles to defend the green while the rest of the world flips then off with a jolly “Who cares?” Freeman’s quixotic actions feel good, but on reflection show the futility of his plan. After all, space craft don’t just replenish themselves. Probably the most icon element of this film are the three small droids Huey, Dewey and Louie (played by amputees) who awkwardly help Freeman. Supporting the feature, we find the usual plethora of special features: directors commentary, a “Making Of” and stills. My impression from 1977 holds steady after all these years: Dern’s Freeman is a believable guru of preservation, but he just doesn’t have the resources to do anything useful because saving the world from itself is not a one-man operation. Silent Running holds a weird position in film: it’s both timeless and horribly dated, but it’s a clever construct and a science fiction with a good moral and reasonable special effects for its day. But with no aliens, ray guns, or giant meteors it’s not exactly thrilling or nail biting. It’s just one visionary everyman, attempting to fight back a meteor storm of stupidity.