Silent Running Review
In an era which advocated the importance of preservation, love and peace, Silent Running is undoubtedly a clear product of its time; a film that screams out a perfect kind of idealism in a manner that would seem dated by today’s standards. Yet regardless of the feature fully embracing its seventies roots, we find that as it approaches its 40th anniversary the tale has ultimately become one that holds far more relevancy in today’s society than any of us might have expected.
Set in 2008 with the advent of Earth’s natural environment being extinguished due to a rapidly growing society and frequent pollution, Silent Running tells the story of the Valley Forge: a space-station charged with caring for the last of Earth’s forests. For years it has been orbiting Saturn, waiting for that call to come back home, but when the call comes through telling the workers that the project is to be terminated and the housing domes to be jettisoned and destroyed it sends its lead botanist, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), on a desperate crusade which will lead to the ultimate sacrifice.
There’s a point to Silent Running in that it’s a film which truly believes in what it’s saying, that humanity should be far more caring toward the safeguard of its own future. In providing a commentary on the state of Earth’s inevitable decline, informing us that we should hold on to the things we all too easily take for granted, Silent Running is a sincere piece of work, with a narrative of such importance to match its aesthetic value. As eco tales go, it’s easy for film makers to become sidetracked, to overstate their points and leave audiences numb to their effect. Douglas Trumbull’s skill, evidenced in his directorial debut, is that he actually relies on very little in tackling such an important theme. The script does indeed appear heavy-handed early on as Lowell vocally lambastes his colleagues with regards to mankind’s attitude toward artificial products, but as a dramatic move to establish the set-up it works considerably well. From the vital moment that Lowell finds himself alone, Silent Running almost de-evolves; like a silent picture it becomes more understated, relying on little dialogue and stirring emotions through its hauntingly beautiful soundtrack and attractively composed shots.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film, however, is that its characterisations somewhat eschews expectations. The lines are blurred between what could be considered good and bad here, with a slight cast of individuals whose roles are simply to juxtapose acts of passion, ignorance and passiveness. There’s no real fleshing out beyond that of Lowell, and even he himself, through a slightly warped ideology, doesn’t come across as being a typically likeable heroic figure. The film might not present much hope for humanity then, beyond such bleakness, but there’s an undeniable truth in the way its portrays its victims. Perhaps more conversely still is that the film is nonetheless a heartbreaking piece in its deconstruction of relationships, taking its idea of bonding beyond the flesh as Lowell’s actions become increasingly questionable. With his companions gone, thanks to his own doing, Lowell finds himself taking solace in three unlikely drones, naming them Huey, Dewey and Louie. It’s striking then that when almost all human participants are removed from the equation the film remains as humanistic as possible, going so far as to have us take a great deal of pleasure in watching these little machines learn how to be like their master in order to keep their new friend’s pain at bay, and more importantly in becoming the guardians of his legacy. Certainly if there was a lovable aspect to be found it’s through these creations, which perhaps tells us more about ourselves than we’d care to admit. In fact if you don’t get immersed during these lighter moments and ultimately shed a tear by its conclusion then there’s probably something wrong with you.
Through all of this Douglas Trumbull’s effects work is once again top notch, standing the test of time thanks to some marvelous practical designs; both inventive and subtle it provides a realisation that many science fiction films fail to do, providing quiet exteriors shots which provide room for reflection. But then, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, this wasn’t designed to be any other way. Silent Running isn’t some riveting action film but a science fiction parable deeply rooted in reality. It might not be the kind of fiction that modern day audiences will be able to accustom themselves to, in a time where big budgets and non-stop thrills are the order of the day. Indeed it’s a bit of a slow-burner, methodical in its breaking down of the lead character - passionately portrayed by Bruce Dern in one of very few leading roles afforded to him throughout his career - but it’s one of the most important pieces of science fiction put to screen; a heartfelt and intelligent feature which underneath it all feels all too close to home.
Utilising the MPEG-4 AVC Video codec, Silent Running arrives on high definition 1080p in pristine shape. Preserving its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the feature underwent a fair amount of restoration, which according to the accompanying booklet, included the removal of dirt, scratches, debris and fixing up frame instabilities through HD-DVNR, Phoenix and MTI systems techniques.
The very mention of DVNR often causes room for concern, but Eureka’s approach to Silent Running is as delicate as the film’s message. Although a little soft in areas, taking into account a lot of wide open shots, detail is very good across the board, with the transfer retaining a light sheet of grain that feels very film-like. Colours are vibrant and kitsch, from the lovely shots of forestry, with lush greens, to the funky recreation room and colour-coded uniforms, which exhibit no signs of bleeding despite some gaudy-ness. Black levels are rich, along with excellent shadow detail and contrast.
Eureka presents two audio options, the first of which is a lossless 2.0 stereo DTS-HD Master. As mentioned previously, Silent Running isn’t a film designed to challenge theatres’ set-ups, relying more on a subtle ambience to carry its narrative. As such, this presentation won’t likely blow anybody away with its lack of bass, but regardless it’s still an excellent reproduction of the original elements which pleases where it needs to. The score sounds wonderful, as does Joan Beaz’s songs, while dialogue is crisp and sound effects softly immersing.
Also included is Peter Schickele’s entire score in isolated format; a feature carried over from Universal’s DVD release from 2000.
In fact all of the features from that R1 release have been ported over here, making for an overall essential upgrade, although it should be noted that these are presented at 480.
The audio commentary featuring Douglas Trumbull and Bruce Dern offers a fairly dry but incredibly informative discussion on not just the main feature, but film making in general back in the day, when the industry wasn’t quite as restrictive as it is now. The pair go into plenty of detail regarding how certain areas were approached and how special effects were achieved, some of which is guaranteed to be a bit of an eye-opener. There’s a nice chemistry here, between two men who are still very passionate and proud of their work.
Charles L. Barbee’s The Making of Silent Running, despite clocking in at just 50 minutes, is a must-see documentation of the film’s shoot. It crams in an awful lot as it takes us on a tour through the decommissioned aircraft carrier, which was used as the set for the film; its cramped setting naturally posing challenges, but ones met with clear enthusiasm. It’s a very intimate piece which introduces us to the many performers, including those tasked with bringing the drones to life, and provides an enjoyable insight into what seemed like a genuinely fulfilling production.
Also included is 35 minutes with Douglas Trumbull, who talks us through some of his background, his relationship with Stanley Kubrick and the movie studios of the time. He tells us how certain aspects of Silent Running was inspired, and how he set about filming on such a low budget. The main interview is followed by a brief lament on the decline of 70mm and how Trumbull seeks to push his Showscan technology into cinemas, which would allow theatres to project feature films at 60fps.
There’s also a shorter interview with Bruce Dern, who’s clearly appreciative of the role, explaining the importance of being cast as freeman at that point in his career.
The original theatrical trailer is also present.
Finally there’s a 48-page booklet, featuring an assortment of photographs and artwork which serves as a tremendous insight into the production; featuring exhaustive pieces on DOP Charles F. Wheeler, Special Designer Wayne Smith and composer Peter Schickele. There’s a lot of detail here, which makes it a nice companion piece to the documentary on disc.
Prices below and in the left column are for the standard Blu-ray release. There is also a Limited Edition Steelbook available and you can find the best prices for that over at Pricedemon - Link