Silent Running Review
There are some science-fiction classics that are instantly recognised amongst mainstream audiences, such as Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey or the original Planet Of The Apes. Yet, there are other science-fiction classics that have largely escaped the public's consciousness, and yet are equally as worthy as those already mentioned. Silent Running is such a film, and thirty years later still carries a highly important ethical message.
The film tells of botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), an astronaut who has spent eight years aboard the Valley Forge space freighter along with three other male astronauts. Lowell's task has been to preserve and help flourish the remnants of the only botanical specimens taken from Earth; maintained under huge geodesic domes carried by the Forge. Lowell is convinced that Earth will embrace his experiments upon the crew's return, convincing the rest of the crew that his fellow humans will be quick in their attempts to re-foliate the Earth. However, Lowell is dismayed when he is ordered by Ground Control to abandon the mission and destroy the pods containing the botanical specimens, and this sparks an inner-rage in which Lowell takes matter in his own hands in order to save a fundamental part of Earth's nature.
Silent Running is typically low-budget and dated when compared to bigger studio science-fiction tales. The costumes, set decoration and even the Joan Baez-penned soundtrack date the film considerably, and yet this dated charm seems to represent a forgotten era that demonstrated society's growing concern over ecological issues (as seen two years after with Soylent Green). The film carries a simple ethical debate that seems to bring with it an immensely complex process when it comes to finding the answer - Are a few human lives more or less important than the last surviving remnants of nature? Yes, the film is fascist, but then so was Dirty Harry and Death Wish, and the audience sided with Eastwood and Bronson in those movies too. In each of these 'fascist' early seventies' movies, the fascism emerges out of necessity, as if the protagonists exhibiting fascist tendencies are forced into it due to the apathy of their surrounding systems. The apathy in Silent Running is represented by Lowell's three fellow astronauts, who are indifferent to the destruction of the botanical pods due to their extreme desire to return home. Lowell, on the other hand, clearly had volunteered to partake in such a task because he wants to help nature survive, as if he has deliberately abandoned an apathetical Earth in which nature has become moribund.
There's also another interesting sub-theme that is explored within Silent Running, and that is the issue of man's own companionship. Rather than seek friendship amongst his three fellow astronauts, Lowell is more drawn towards acuqiring the three automated drones as his friends. He even renames them Huey, Dewey and Louie, and programs them to help serve his self-appointed mission to help save nature. It's as if the film is suggesting that not only must Lowell take matters into his own hands, but he also must 're-program' his companions in order to help 'enlighten' them in their quest. Also, it suggests that Lowell must 'humanise' the three drones in order to prevent himself from meeting his own insanity, which seemed near without any form of human companionship.
Lowell isn’t likeable as a character as presented by Bruce Dern, and yet this is an important touch, as we the audience need to believe that a man as self-righteous as Lowell is capable of assuming that his own objectives outweigh those dictated by his own planet's society. Bruce Dern is magnificent as Lowell; he encapsulates a man torn between burden and guilt. He could easily have played a serial killer villain in a police thriller, and yet Dern embraces these characteristics and helps them fuel his own character's heroic status.
The directing by visual effects maestro Douglas Trumbull is deliberately slow-paced, as if heightening the slow, insane build-up that is slowly sparked amongst Lowell's inner-thought processes. It's interesting to note that the film gathers momentum when the inanimate drone characters become a mainstay of the film's narrative, almost suggesting that Trumbull clearly wishes the drones to harness most of the audience's emotion rather than have the audience care about Lowell's fellow astronauts.
Silent Running is a poetic futuristic allegory of a world in which pleasure has surpassed beauty, and apathy has replaced inner-drive. It's masterfully simple, and despite exhibiting a dated aesthetic still manages to act as one of the most thoughtful and majestic science-fiction tales to ever be born out of Hollywood.
The picture quality of the transfer is much improved over the expensive bare-bones release of the film that was released previously, as it has been cleaned up and has been graced with anamorphic enhancement. Although the transfer is murky in colour tone and decidedly grainy, it is still the best visual version the film has yet to see and is mostly devoid of any artefacts, and complements the experience of watching Silent Running. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Presented in two-track mono, the sound is mostly devoid of any hiss or defect but is obviously lacking in any dynamic range. Thankfully, the sound mix has not been stripped bare by being remixed in 5.1, and with the exception of the Joan Baez songs that could do with stereo remixing, the rest of the sound track is perfectly fine in mono.
Menu: A silent, static menu that is surprisingly bland for such an underrated classic movie.
Packaging: Presented in an amaray casing with stylish cover artwork (if slightly too contemporary), the packaging also features a one page insert that contains chapter listings. Note, for anyone who has purchased this title from stockists that enlist Canadian suppliers, the packaging is in both English and French.
Audio Commentary By Douglas Trumbull & Bruce Dern: This is a treat for fans of the film as it contains the two major players of Silent Running talking scene-specifically about it. It's quite a joy to hear two opinionated individuals talking freely about subjects that matter to them, such as ecology, filmmaking and the contemporary films that were released around the same time as Silent Running, such as The Omega Man and Soylent Green. The biggest joy is listening to Trumbull slate Kubrick over credit concerning the special effects to 2001: A Space Odyssey, although the commentary is pleasurable throughout its duration.
The Making Of Silent Running: It might not have the slick feel of a modern day documentary, but this forty-nine minute early seventies' feature is a fantastic, fascinating insight into the making of the film and the processes involved in bringing the more ambitious parts of the story to the screen. It's deliciously grainy, colour-bled and fuzzy, and is presented in fullscreen and mono to help conjure up nostalgic memories of some of the earlier forms of 'making-of' documentaries.
Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull: This thirty minute contemporary documentary is produced by DVD veteran Laurent Bouzereau and is a polished, revisionist look at the film and its impact on audiences both then and now. Trumbull and Dern already cover most of the topics discussed in the commentary, but this documentary is still enjoyable to watch and remains a nice companion piece.
A Conversation With Bruce Dern: This is a ten minute retrospective interview with Bruce Dern in which he recalls how he became involved in the film, and offers his own opinions on the ethical messages conveyed. Dern's comments are interspersed with clips from the film and behind-the-scenes stills.
Douglas Trumbull: Then And Now: This is a five minute short featurette devoted to mentioning in Trumbull's own words how he flirted with directing whilst earning a living as a special effects designer, and how his directorial career never really flourished despite showing initial promise.
Theatrical Trailer: This is a very rusty three minute 1971 trailer for the film that has been given very dated, reverent narration and an abundance of important clips from the film.
Production Notes: Some interesting production notes for the film presented as text on screen.
Cast And Filmmakers: Brief biographies/filmographies of the very major cast and crew members, presented as text on screen.
One of the most interesting science-fiction films of the nineteen-seventies has been given a tremendous Laurent Bouzereau-produced DVD that renders the previous non-anamorphic bare-bones release immediately redundant. Considering its very low retail price, Silent Running is by far and away a DVD that should be snapped up without hesitation.
Thanks to Jon Robertson for providing kind assistance when writing this review