Silent Running (1971) **
Some movies are such obvious products of their times that it is simply impossible to imagine them being made in any other. The technologies they employ, the attitudes the reflect, the assumptions they make about the way the world works— these things all combine in some peculiar way that pins the film down to a certain era. And let me tell you, 1971 was the only time in all of human history that could possibly have produced Silent Running. For one thing, there were still great numbers of hippies running around in 1971, and a fair proportion of them still hadn’t been completely neutralized by their years of intensive drug use. ‘71 also seems to have been the year that environmentalism finally broke out into the mainstream— that was the year when car manufacturers began re-tuning their late-60’s engines to take unleaded gasoline in the real world, while in the reel world, it brought us the first wave of ecology-conscious monster movies. And finally, it seems to have been about then that mistrust of government and authority really started to spread out from the counterculture into society at large. With all that going on in the background, the stage was set for an era of unprecedented pessimism and paranoia in popular entertainment— for a brief interval, in other words, during which a movie about a spacefaring hippy and his pet robots turning to violence in order to protect the last 31,000 square feet of natural Earthly ecosystem in the universe from destruction could actually be taken seriously.
Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern, from The Wild Angels and The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant) is part of the four-man crew of the spaceship Valley Forge. This vessel is part of a squadron of four former interplanetary freighters in orbit around Saturn, which have been converted to carry the biological heritage of Earth. The planet itself has been completely built and paved over, and transformed into a single, homogenous, climate-controlled environment fit only for human beings. The Valley Forge and her three sister-ships each carry six geodesic domes, about 200 feet in diameter, each of which houses a different preserved ecosystem. (Among others, the Valley Forge carries a North American pine forest and a piece of the Southwestern American desert.) The original idea, apparently, was that these ships would eventually be called home, and their cargo used to refoliate the planet, and Lowell is still a true believer in that original mission. Unfortunately, the other fifteen men in the squadron have other ideas. We never meet the crews of the other three vessels, but Lowell’s crewmates are eco-philistines of the first order. Our first look at Wolf (Cliff Potts), Barker (Ron Rifkin), and Keenan (Jesse Vint, from Bug and Pigs) comes when they race the all-terrain go-carts they use to get around inside the immense ship into the forest dome where Lowell is tending to the small garden he has created in a clearing near the entrance, and drive over Lowell’s vegetables. These three actively resent their mission, seeing absolutely no point in preserving the last of Earth’s non-human biomass, and wishing with all their hearts that leveler heads will prevail back home, and order the whole project abandoned.
They get their wish very soon. The commodore of the squadron radios the Valley Forge from his flagship, the Berkshire, and informs the crew that he has received orders to jettison and destroy the domes— with nuclear detonators, naturally— and return to Earth to resume their places in the planet’s commercial shipping fleet; no explanation has been given for the decision to abort the mission. Lowell doesn’t like this, of course, but orders are orders, right? Figuring there’s no way to change anyone’s mind about the fate of the domes, Lowell sets to work digging up as many of the smaller plants as he can, and transferring them to flower pots, which he will presumably take home with him to Earth. But when the other ships’ crews actually begin blowing up their domes, the idea for a more pro-active approach begins to form in his mind. Then the destruction of the first four domes on the Valley Forge seals his resolve. When Barker comes to set the detonator in the pine forest dome, Lowell kills him with a shovel, and then hurries to the ship’s bridge to jettison the desert dome— where Wolf and Keenan have already set the bomb— before the other two men can escape from it. Lowell then radios the commodore that there has been a series of accidents, including the premature detonation of one of the domes and the destruction of the jettisoning machinery for the final dome. He also mentions that he thinks his shipmates were inside the fifth dome when it blew up prematurely. The commodore replies that it is urgent that Lowell find a way to ditch the last dome, because the Valley Forge’s present course will take it straight into Saturn’s rings on the night side of the planet. These ships weren’t designed for such a rough ride, and the commodore doesn’t think the Valley Forge will survive. Naturally he doesn’t realize this, but that’s exactly what Lowell wants to hear. If the folks back home think he’s dead, no one will come looking for him, and he’ll be able to tend his forest in peace— for the rest of his life, if necessary.
We’re a bit less than halfway through the film at this point, so one would expect there to be a hell of a lot more plot on the way— perhaps something about this future’s spacefaring equivalent of the Coast Guard finding out about Lowell’s survival, something about the authorities getting wise to his mutiny, maybe even something about the political repercussions of his desperate action back on Earth. That’s not what happens, though. Instead, Silent Running’s story comes to a complete halt, and doesn’t get moving again until five minutes before the closing credits. How does it fill up the next 40 minutes, you ask? Well, first Lowell reprograms the ship’s maintenance drones to serve as his companions and assistants in the work of tending to the forest. Then, after one of the drones is destroyed during the ship’s passage through Saturn’s ring, he fiddles with the programs of the remaining two drones some more, so that they will answer to the names Huey (Mark Persons) and Dewey (Cheryl Sparks). (Louie, of course, didn’t survive to see his formal christening.) Then he teaches the droids how to play poker. It’s all excruciatingly dull, really. Finally, with just minutes left on the clock, Lowell receives a transmission from the Berkshire; evidently, the commodore meant what he said about sending out a search party for Lowell. Now Lowell has a problem, though. His ship isn’t really damaged, his crewmates are dead, and his forest is still attached to the ship— there’s going to be a lot of explaining to do when the folks from the Berkshire come aboard, and little chance of saving the forest Lowell took such drastic action to protect. I’ll say one thing in this movie’s favor: the solution Lowell ultimately adopts is of the most rigorous intellectual honesty, and would have been seriously powerful if I wasn’t rooting so hard for the movie to just fucking end by the time he arrived at it.
Silent Running’s grievous structural and dramatic woes are only the beginning of the movie’s problems, though. I have some serious suspension-of-disbelief issues with this film that stacked the deck against it from the very start. I simply cannot buy the notion of a humans-only Earth, especially a scant 100 years in the future! We, as a species, just aren’t that powerful. We can make ourselves extinct, sure, and we can take every terrestrial vertebrate larger than a rat or a seagull with us when we go. We can rid the planet of old-growth forests, turn jungles into deserts, exterminate every species of aquatic mammal, and turn all the world’s rivers, lakes, and estuaries into open sewers. But we’re never, ever, ever going to get rid of all non-human life on Earth— not even the still-unexplained worldwide catastrophe that caused the Permian Extinction accomplished that! And even if we could, it wouldn’t be possible to do so without ruining the planet for ourselves. That’s the real message of environmentalism, after all— that we are inextricably tied to the rest of the biosphere, and as it goes, so do we. A foliage-free— or even just critically deforested— Earth would be incapable of recycling the oxygen that we need to breathe. Our capacity to synthesize organic compounds is nowhere near what would be necessary in order to create actual food from petrochemicals, and I don’t see it improving to that degree in just 100 years. Our only hope of basic biological survival would be mass cannibalism, in which case the attendant total collapse of civilization would preclude anything like the kind of advanced, technologically dependent society sketched out in Silent Running. Furthermore, even if we assume that such a society could exist, what possible reason could its leaders have for wanting to preserve two dozen tiny pockets of the very wilderness that they’ve so gleefully destroyed all over the world?!?! I mean, if the real thing wasn’t important enough to keep around, why go to the expense of creating artificial ecosystems in geodesic domes and then shooting them into space to orbit Saturn until such time as we realize how stupid it was to pave over the Earth? Besides, if history teaches anything about “progress,” it’s that nobody ever considers what’s being given up in its name until it’s already much too late. Only in the near-hysterical context of apocalyptic times (and the turn of the 70’s were certainly that) could this movie’s underlying premise have seemed anything but ridiculous.
And while we’re on the subject of the ridiculous, let’s have a look at the two big holdovers from the 60’s that are so prominently displayed in Silent Running. Bruce Dern’s acting here is simply beyond belief. He’s really just doing the same shtick as he had in all those drugs-and-bikers movies he made for Roger Corman starting in 1966. It scarcely seems possible that anyone would hire such an obvious wacko for a year-long mission in outer space, let alone put him in charge of safeguarding the planet’s biological heritage! Don’t they have security clearances in the future?! As for the other 60’s holdover, the soundtrack by Joan Baez made me mad enough to eat babies. It thankfully doesn’t come up all that often, but her tuneless warbling will surely have anyone who isn’t on some giant 60’s nostalgia kick reaching for the volume button on their remote control.
It isn’t all bad, however. There’s the ending, for one thing. And the special effects by director Douglas Trumbull (who had been the top effects man on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Jonathan Dykstra (the genius behind Star Wars’ epoch-marking production design) are beautiful, if also somewhat dated. The Valley Forge, for example, understandably rather resembles a cross between the Discovery 1 and the Battlestar Galactica— the models are complex, highly detailed, and exhibit no consideration given to irrelevant aerodynamic principles. Silent Running also features, in the robots Huey and Dewey, the obvious forerunners of R2-D2. These strange little machines (which were played by double amputees walking on their hands) are amazingly expressive and fully believable as characters, and the people inside them put in by far the best performances in the movie.