The Sci-Fi Epic That Time Never Actually Forgot

I really should know better by now.

For years I’ve repeatedly been able to convince myself that I’m one of but a happy few who know about Silent Running.  Yet when I try to introduce it to people, the response is almost invariably “Oh, I LOVE that movie!”  If a film screens in the forest and everyone’s there to see it, is it still a cult film?

This time, I think it is…

Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running occupies a unique place in sci-fi movie history.  It was released in 1972, right at the point where the metaphysics of 2001: A Space Odyssey were beginning to give way to the spectacle of Star Wars, and so exists in a kind of twilight zone between the two, at once thrilling and thoughtful.  Even after four decades, time enough to inspire a generation of genre directors, I’ve never seen another film quite like it.

The story and themes will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the film’s descendants, such as Moon or WALL·E.  In a future that’s simultaneously distant and disturbingly close, Earth (never seen in this film) is a wasteland, its plant life extinct save for a few last specimens kept alive by a fleet of space freighters.  On one of those freighters, we meet the crew and quickly come to realize that this is nothing more than a paycheck to most of them.

But also on the ship is Freeman Lowell, a botanist who, alone among the crew, is passionate about preserving those specimens.  Since he’s played by Bruce Dern, you just know that his passion will tip him over into madness.  So when the crew receives the order to destroy its forests and return home, what Lowell does, though shocking, really shouldn’t surprise you.

In the aftermath of his actions, Lowell is left alone, with only his plants and three “drones” (the beloved fathers of R2-D2: Huey, Dewey, and Louie) to keep him company through his odyssey.  And that’s where Silent Running, already an excellent film, becomes something truly special – not merely a dystopian cautionary tale, but a meditation on loneliness, on the basic human need to connect to something, anything, and to have it connect to us.

It’s a lot to ask of an actor to play all of that, to carry the plot and themes of the script (co-written by Steven Bochco and Michael Cimino), but the film has the considerable advantage of Bruce Dern.  Through him, we come to know Lowell, we believe his relationships with Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and we feel all the emotions he goes through as the journey wears upon him.  It’s an incredible performance, and it helps make Silent Running one of the most human science-fiction films I’ve ever seen, and one of the most humane.

Which is not to slight the film’s technical brilliance.  When you know that Trumbull was an FX supervisor for 2001, you’ll naturally hold a film he directed himself to a very high standard of effects.  And it meets them, with production design and miniature work that still hold up, even exceeding a great deal of today’s CGI.  These ships have scope, they have scale, they have mass, and that’s something I’ve really come to miss in modern sci-fi film.

Finally (and knowing me, you had to know this was coming), there’s Peter Schickele’s score, one of the few I’ve heard that can truly be called “otherworldly”.  Even two improbable Joan Baez songs work perfectly in the context of the film.

I guess the best way to sum it up is to say that Silent Running is a classic reminder of what science fiction movies used to be.  And I hope that’s not entirely lost to us.

So, yes, I LOVE this movie.  And I’d like to think you would too.  To which end, you’ll find it available for instant viewing on Netflix, or on DVD at a decent video store.  Either way, I hope you’ll check it out, starting with the trailer below:

Thanks as always for following along, and until next time, “be seeing you…”

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