Director: Douglas Trumbull
Screenplay: Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino & Steven Bochco
Starring: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin
Producers: Michael Gruskoff & Douglas Trumbull
Running Time: 89 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Sci-fi classic Silent Running makes it’s way to Blu-Ray in the UK this week and I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy to review. Now I only watched the film for the first time last year and I wasn’t totally blown away by it, so would a second viewing grant it the rank of ‘classic’ in my eyes that it generally receives from others?
For those of you that haven’t seen Silent Running or aren’t aware of it, let me fill you in. After the surprise box-office goldmine of Easy Rider in 1969, Universal Studios in a bid to emulate this success, signed up a group of five young up and coming directors to make them five ‘semi-independent’ feature films with a minimal budget, but a promise of no interference from the studio bigwigs. Those films were The Hired Hand, The Last Movie, Taking Off, American Graffiti and Silent Running, which was directed by first timer Douglas Trumbull, previously the special effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Silent Running is set on a spacecraft (the Valley Forge) drifting through space with the last remaining forests from Earth, which has been decimated by nuclear war. When the crew are contacted and told to abandon the mission, destroy the forests and return home, one crew member, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), refuses and murders the other three crew members, flying the ship and it’s final forrest pod off into the black of space with only two robot ‘drones’ as company.
Given a second watch of Silent Running, I’m still not 100% sold on the film. I think it’s very good (thus the 4 star rating), but it’s not consistent enough for me to be a cast iron classic. My only problem with it really is the first twenty minutes or so. This set-up for the film where we meet the small cast and their attitudes toward the situation they’re in is very heavy handed and clunky. Lowell’s constant ranting at his ignorant co-workers and their inability to appreciate the beauty of nature is grating and far too black-and-white. Yes of course Lowell is in the right, but the complete lack of compassion from the others just isn’t believable and its persistence feels like a hammer blow to the audience’s heads telling us to appreciate what we have now or else! On top of these ‘debates’ we have a cringeworthy sequence where Lowell walks into the forrest to the folky strains of Joan Baez, stops and holds out his arm and an eagle promptly flies over and lands on it. This is almost spoof level stuff, but taken deadly seriously. I think the music is the key guilty party here. I love folk music from the 60’s and 70’s, and Joan Baez is a wonderful singer, but her inclusion in key scenes like this instantly dates the otherwise ahead of it’s time film and clashes with the quiet and subtle sound effects and score.
After these opening scenes though the film picks up brilliantly. Once Lowell snaps and (semi-accidentally) kills a crew mate in a desperate bid to hold on to these precious relics, the film enters a much darker realm. The next 20 minutes consist of Lowell formulating a plan on the spot as things fall apart around him and the commanders do their best to ‘save’ him which makes for intense viewing. Once he completely breaks away from outside contact and any drastic problems with the ship the film then really hits it’s gentle yet most powerful stride. Rather than continue to bombard the viewer with ‘green’ messages as in the opening segments, the film takes on another form, exploring the loneliness and emptiness of space and one man’s attempt to use technology to solve this problem. Lowell reprograms the ship’s two remaining drones and names them Huey and Dewey, forming a close friendship with these mechanical devices and teaching them to tend to the forrest for the future. Without having them communicate in any audible way and without giving the robots anything that could be seen as ‘eyes’, Trumbull still manages to create memorable and sympathetic characters from these lumps of metal through subtle movements and various flaps on their shells. Through this it’s clear to see that Silent Running was a big influence on Star Wars and it’s design of R2D2 as well as the titular robot from Wall-E.
Another filmmaker that has obviously watched Silent Running a number of times is Duncan Jones, as Moon has this film plastered all over it. As well as the low-key loneliness aspects that Moon emulated, Jones’ film clearly tried to match the make-shift set-design and practical effects elements of Trumbull’s 1972 film. Silent Running’s effects still hold up well too, further proof that practical effects hold greater longevity over anything created in a computer (show me a film made in the 90’s whose CGI effects still look good – even Jurassic Park is showing a few seems here and there). Yes the clarity of Blu-Ray means that the ship exteriors are a little more obviously models, but it also brings out the level of detail gone into making them. The sets, although very 70’s in design, still look convincing enough too. The filmmakers actually shot pretty much the whole film (other than the garden scenes) in a disused aircraft carrier (also named Valley Forge) which they cleaned up and remodelled to look like a spacecraft, helping give a more convincing feel of claustrophobia.
As the film reaches it’s poignant climax it does impress and there’s a lot to admire in the filmmaking, technical aspects and Dern’s richly varied performance (why does he so rarely get lead roles?), but even after a second viewing I still struggle to shake off that wobbly first quarter.
Silent Running is out on Blu-Ray on November 14th in standard packaging or a deluxe steelbook edition, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema range. The film has been lovingly restored and looks pristine on Blu-Ray, a hell of an improvement over the letterboxed DVD we had to put up with previously. The audio sounds fantastic too and the great sound design can be appreciated on a special sound effects & music only track.
It’s released in an extensive package crammed to the gills with features. At the centre of these is an in-depth vintage 50 minute documentary which includes interesting general information on what different crew roles entail as well as fascinating looks at how Silent Running itself was made. We also get close to an hour’s worth of interviews with Douglas Trumbull and Bruce Dern. Trumbull’s interview includes a discussion of what he did since which I found especially interesting as he seemed to drop off the map after this, a film which didn’t make a lot of money, but certainly gained critical acclaim. It seems he had a lot of bad luck with getting projects off the ground then focused on developing new tech for the film industry. Most fascinatingly he helped develop the first ‘simulator ride’ and was a key player in producing the Back to the Future Ride at Universal Studios. In the interview Trumbull displays a disappointment and bitterness over the ride not being seen as artistically credible or gaining the critical praise it deserved. To him it was a revolutionary piece of filmmaking, bringing the audience as close to the experience of being in a film as possible. Dern’s interview on the other hand is a little ‘arse-kissy’ but still worth a watch. We also get a commentary track from the two of them which contains a little backslapping (mainly from Dern again), but overall makes for a great listen, filling the audience in on a lot of the technical details as well as stories about what happened before and after Silent Running for the director and actor. To top all of these features off is a superb and lengthy booklet that is more ‘behind the scenes’ focussed than usual for a Masters of Cinema release, rather than a critical analysis. It contains a lot of design artwork from the film too which is great to see.
An unmissable package for fans of the film and those interested in low budget filmmaking.