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Silent Running Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 15, 2011

    Silent Running Review

    Eureka’s Masters of Cinema range has come up trumps with the beautiful Blu-ray release of one of SF’s silver-age gems, 1972’s reflective meditation on the wasteful nature of Mankind, and how a galactic solution to saving the rain forests becomes a noble last stand for one man in particular, Douglas Trumball’s Silent Running.

    "It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth... and there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in - you could go to sleep in. And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air... and there were things growing all over the place, not just in some domed enclosures blasted some millions of miles out in to space.”

    Silent Running is the hippy cousin to Star Wars, a genre-clad eco-warning that is, in part, an overblown and sentimental ode to natural love and harmony and, in another, a stark reminder that corporate doctrine will have its tendrils, Empire-like, into everything … no matter how far, far away that galaxy may be.Directed by visual FX-wunderkind Douglas Trumball and written by Deric Washburn, ace TV drama alumnus Steven Bochco and even Michael (The Deer Hunter) Cimino – although I cannot believe how it could take three people to cobble such a threadbare and whimsical plot together - this is one of the great thinking-man’s space-yarns that tended to populate the late sixties and early seventies. We’d had the flamboyant id-boggling adventure of Forbidden Planet way back in 1958, which sort of paved the way for a lot of visually exciting and intellectually stimulating dramas to follow. So then came the complex and cerebral 2001: A Space Odyssey and the thought-provoking thrills and spills of Planet of The Apes, both of which looked closely at not only Man’s place within the universe but also his place within his own consciousness. 1972 also saw the release of Andrei Tarkovsky's masterful Solaris, another depiction of the torments and isolation of deep-space obsession. Although it was still another inspired future-shock, Silent Running was, on the other hand, actually lighter in terms of its psychology but weightier with regards to its theme of the more immediate issues affecting our own planet and Man’s attitude to them. Weightier as in heavy-handed. But it will always be remembered for also bringing the notion of cute, loveable robots acting as charismatic companions to a responsive audience long before George Lucas would make them household names. Michael Crichton’s Westworld would turn robots into untrustworthy monsters only a year later but, for Trumball, they were the iconic, sentimental and unbiased evocation of a being totally free from cynicism. They were his ironic assertion that no matter how technological advanced his story might be, it would be the humanity that would shine through brightest of all.

    Out past the moons of Saturn, a flotilla of starships haul the last surviving forests of a polluted Earth in vast, domed gardens. Their mission is to keep these fragile eco-systems alive until the poisoned planet is once again able to sustain them and replenish its natural world. Small, but dedicated crews tend to these immense floating environments, aided by hard-working little service robots. But when the order is given that these last forests are to be destroyed, one spacemen, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), decides that he cannot let that happen, and rebels against the cold-hearted tyranny of the corporations back home. Turning against his companions, whom he doesn't get along with anyway, he pledges to save one last garden, no matter what it takes. Death, obsession and sacrifice ensue, and all to the haunting flower-power rhapsodising of cultural icon Joan Baez. Oh and little robots learn to play poker. And cheat.

    There really isn't all that much else to Trumball's slow-moving and overly earnest odyssey of determination and redemption. He taps into the eco-concerns of the tree-hugging generation, but sends such hopes and fears into the cosmos, thereby hoping to make his own statement a touch more palatable for those of a more commercial and exploitative mindset by dressing it up as SF adventure. After working on 2001 for Kubrick, Trumball made the leap to helming a full feature with no small amount of ambition. Although he had three successful and imaginative minds working on the screenplay, the basic idea was his, and he would refine their script into something that fitted his original plan. What he created could well have been a Twilight Zone or an Outer Limits episode … and its tempting to imagine the Starship Enterprise encountering our “galactic gardener” at some point in their five-year mission, or one of the domes landing just over the hill from the Robinson Family in Lost In Space. By today's standards, the story is slight. In fact, even back then, the plot was thumbnail. But this is almost certainly one of the film's graces. The message and the setting was enough.

    It is resolutely Dern's picture, and it is to his credit that he stoically remains just as idiosyncratic and weird as ever. Normally, he offers firm support in smaller roles that his unique style makes memorable. Here, he has to carry the film and the bulk of its convictions almost single-handedly. The first act features his reluctant colleagues. Cliff Potts plays Keenan, the closest thing that Freeman has to a friend and an ally, although in one the story's most shocking twists, this tentative friendship will have violently tragic consequences. Ron Rifkin gets a little more screentime as Marty, the most vocal of the gardener's decriers, his constant sparring with Lowell simmering with barely contained rage. As Andy Wolf, Jesse Vint, who always used to remind me of combination of Dennis Hopper and a younger, less sunken-faced Robert Mitchum, is as familiar from a hundred TV shows as the other two actors, but he was also the most unlikely hero and sex symbol of Roger Corman's loopy-gloopy mutant-flick Forbidden World. These early sequences rather laboriously illustrate the strains of the group dynamic and, although necessary, and reasonably well-acted, tend to stick in the throat with their glaring lack of subtlety. But it is Dern who is given the lion's share of performance even during this introductory phase.

    In a few ways he reminds us of Charlton Heston’s iconic astronaut Taylor from Planet Of The Apes. But whereas Taylor believed that “somewhere in the universe there must be something better than Man”, Lowell is content to sit in his lovingly nurtured celestial gardens, tend to their needs and simply forget that the rest of his species even exists. For Lowell, there is no shining revelation waiting out there just behind the next moon. And he doesn’t want one, either. He is the space gardener, a dedicated botanist who truly believes that when the recall command comes he will be the one assigned with re-foliating the planet. Such single-minded devotion is almost religious … and, indeed, he wears brown monastic robes and grows his hair long, almost like a galactic messiah. In a neat inversion later on, we actually see him stitching one of his mission badges onto the robes – no matter how noble his beliefs, a true American still loves his insignia! But this is zealous arrogance and psychological folly. His heart is definitely in the right place … but his ethics, in a way, are just as irrational as those he rails against.

    Bruce Dern had just killed John Wayne in The Cowboys and he was getting a reputation for playing edgy, unpredictable outsiders lurking on the fringe of society. This was, of course, perfect for the role of Lowell, a spacer who had turned his back on the cesspit of the world and, in his bigoted cynicism, grown resentful of its reach. He is a borderline manic-depressive. He is not as arrogant or as wryly cynical as Taylor. Heston’s preternaturally aggrieved traveller was a curious conduit for us to enter the strange new world of the Apes, his own philosophies turned completely on their heads. Freeman Lowell fares much better in this regard, even if Dern does play him a little too obviously at times. His belief-system does not get overruled and subverted. He clings to his values, no matter what. We understand that he has had the same arguments with his crewmates day in, day out for probably the entire eight years that they’ve been in space together. And yet, as much of a clichéd reactionary as he is, he is more rounded and believable than any of this three antagonists. He becomes vengeful, yes, but only because he has no other option in what he considers to be the overriding bigger picture. Although the other crewmembers are painted as swapped-allegiance yes-men who are just out there for the pay, they are clearly not bad guys who deserve to be eradicated … yet we can’t help siding with Lowell once he commits to his deadly plan of action. Even saying this, though, it is hard to actually like Freeman Lowell. He is a taciturn, bitter man. We understand his emotions – he communicates them with every breath – and we sympathise with them, but he is also a creepy, unpredictable sort of person who would unavoidably get on your nerves after a couple of days … let alone eight years. Even in such a small and close-knit community as that aboard the Valley Forge, he is isolated and socially adrift. His one concession to supposed “normality” is his passion for playing poker, which he is especially skilled at. Some writers have taken pot-shots at this trait, claiming that it flies in the face of his, otherwise, cantankerous and arrogant attitude, but I disagree. Poker is the very epitome of his closely guarded, scheme-weaving and plotting mind. It symbolises his own self-absorption and his innate distrust in others. Once he is alone on the ship, he even programs the drones so that they can play against him … and his continued isolation is exemplified when the two robots then appear to help one another to beat him. Thus, in a way, even the soulless metal buckets he befriends are as wary of him as the rest of the crew were. Plus, it shows two more important things about Lowell's character. Firstly, he likes to win, and is even quite gloating when he does. And, secondly, and most interestingly, it shows an adherence to the same sort of exploitative commercialism that he purports to despise so much … albeit on a much smaller and more personal scale.

    It could also be said that Lowell has gone stare-crazy. His duty has become the be-all and end-all to his existence, so much so that he has forgotten what “home” is, unlike the other three who cannot wait to ditch the domes and turn the ship back around. Clearly he is suffering from a nervous breakdown. And this is our hero! The seventies were bleak and nihilistic and the films of ever genre reflected this. So although it is still optimistic and often quite charming, Silent Running adheres to this with its surprisingly brave depiction of a central character who is unhinged, mad-eyed and dangerous and, inevitably, doomed.

    In one of the better ironies of the story, the same supposedly heartless astronauts in the rest of the botanical armada even mount a rescue operation to save Lowell, who they believe is the only survivor of a catastrophic accident that has sent his ship out of reach beyond Saturn. They have given up on the forests as being a waste of time, but they won't give up on one man – a man who doesn't want to be saved. Thus, the “company” are shown to be not as ruthless as we once thought. But there is still no mistaking just who are the main villains in this interstellar fable. We’ve seen this ethical debate many times, but what I find most interesting is how the idea of a “sinister business” has been brought into play, and how the concept would evolve over the next few years via Weyland Yutante in the Alien series, and Con-Am in the cleverly Alien-affiliated Outland into a faceless villain in its own right. Corporate takeovers and their intense political machinations have been the bogeyman in everything from the tales of Ancient Rome, to the railroad companies and cattle-barons of the Western, to the shady organisations sending out assassins and hit-men in all those covert-ops thrillers like The Bourne Ultimatum and Killer Elite. Critics cite that Trumball only pays clichéd lip-service to the idea, and that his clash of ideals is only superficial and half-hearted. I can’t argue with this. His confrontational angle is purely trite and patently simplistic. But then this works well if you take his film as being a fable. In which case, the clear-cut delineations between Lowell, conveniently christened “Freeman”, and his three companions and the mission controllers back on Earth, make a great deal of emotional sense.

    The design work for the film is extraordinary. Forsaking the more typical white, sterile aesthetic of SF, and its long, clean sets, Trumball insisted upon a “lived-in” quality for the Valley Forge. This would, of course, serve to influence the design ethic for both Star Wars and Alien. The beautiful, geodesic modular domes that house the gardens were modelled upon such architectural wonders as The Theme Building the makers saw at the 1970 Expo in Osaka and the fabulously named Climatron Dome that houses the Missouri Botanical Gardens. The intricate and breathtaking design that they came up with – a celestial spider-web lattice of struts criss-cross the domes – would find kindred spirits in the glass city-domes of Logan’s Run, the retro-industrial look of the Cygnus in The Black Hole and the walls of the hydroponic zones of the mining colony seen in Outland. In some shots, the stern of the ship, with its array of domes positioned around it comes to resemble the head of a Preying Mantis. Amazingly complex miniatures and dazzling large-scale sets founded within the real-life aircraft carrier Valley Forge (decommissioned in 1970, just in time for the production, after seeing service in both the Korean and the Vietnam Wars) bring an authenticity to the hangars, the connecting tunnels and the various labs and dormitories that Lowell and his drones move through. The vacuum-formed hexagonal plastic storage crates that fill the big warehouse hangar were actually supplied by Dow Chemical, in a sort of PR manoeuvre to help restore favour – these were the people who created the napalm used over in Vietnam. Another neat device that sticks in the mind are the low-level all-terrain buggies that Lowell and his crewmates love to bomb around in. These things wouldn’t look out of place in The Banana Splits. And you certainly won't get a prize for guessing that someone is going to come a cropper courtesy of one of them at some point.

    The gardens themselves make for a striking image, especially when seen against the star-fields that surround them. Somehow, they seem a lot smaller than they used to when I was kid watching the film on BBC2, where it seemed to crop up quite a lot, being arty and genre. As an example of what the Earth was once able to grow, they now appear quite tame and more like something the Ground Force knocked-up in a day. The miniature work and the visual effects, especially the now commonplace pull-back reveal of a human seen through a window in a spaceship as we reverse out into space, are excellent for the period. So good that Trumball cannot resist the temptation to show us dozens of slow flybys as scene-transitions. Really, it is only the sight of Dern in a much-too-flimsy spacesuit walking far too casually over the structure of the ship that lets the side down. Wisely, he keeps the sight of Saturn's rings only briefly and simply, though still picturesquely glimpsed, knowing that if he was to attempt to depict them with any sort of scientific realism, it would be a costly and leviathan task.

    But it is possibly the robots, themselves, that stick most in the mind. Famously inhabited by bilateral amputees (Trumball says he get the idea from watching Tod Browning's Freaks) who could fit into and operate the three-foot high drone-suits, with their dexterous and versatile pneumatic central arm, these diminutive, trundling dudes elicit such empathy that the likes of Pixar’s Wall-e surely sat up and paid attention. When Lowell equips them with new programs and trains them to respond to himself, a genuine camaraderie is formed between human and dwarf-drone. He renames them Huey, Dewy and Louie and their shuffling gait – the performers are walking on their hands, their arms providing the rather ungainly legs of the drones – becomes a curiously reassuring sight. When we see them perched on the outer shell of the Valley Forge and pausing in their maintenance work to apparently gaze at the firmament or to ponder morosely on the severed leg of a lost companion-drone, the image is quite captivating. Trumball is at pains to depict a sense of harmony and it is passages such as these that establish it, far more than, say, Lowell going about his gardens and welcoming a falcon to his arm which, if I'm honest, looks a little too stiff and corny to properly convince. The score from PDQ Bach's Peter Schickele is terrific, and combines weird pulse-like effects with some highly memorable themes. The Silent Running fanfare is a marvellous cue that we hear as we first get a full inspection of the Valley Forge, and it is suitably grand and pompous, yet nobly tongue-in-cheek. Schickele was ialso nstrumental in getting Baez to contribute her amazing voice to the film's score.

    Although the premise if Silent Running is an emotive and resonant one, it is built on some shaky ideas. We are asked to believe that once the Earth has lost its natural fertility due to Man’s ever-polluting ways, someone then realises that the forests and the ecology must be saved by blasting them deep into space to float around as so much beautiful eye-candy – and something that is sure to confuse the hell out of any alien observers peering down the other end of a telescope – and then decide that they cost too much and it would, therefore, be more beneficial and practical to blow them up instead. Just how are these colossal forest-domes costing anything to the bean-counters back home? They are self-propagating, self-replenishing environments that have been released into the cosmos, potentially never to return. The order to blow them up makes absolutely no sense. Plus, why would these gardens be sent all that way out into space? I'm no botanist, but I think I sussed out one major difficulty that the plant-life would suffer way out past Saturn long before the supposed “professional” cottoned-on. Also, it is profoundly difficult to believe that out of a crew of four men only one of them would have the necessary dedication and scientific proficiency to protect the eco-project. I'm sure that Keenan, Barker and Wolf would be suitably trained in how to tend to the gardens as well, otherwise they wouldn't be up there in the first place, but this doesn't come across in the film at all. If Trumball is much too glib and contrived in his depiction of Lowell, then he is positively cartoonic when it comes to the crassly observed motivations of the other three. They just seem to want to mess about. Surely, their mission would have other functions too. None of this is made clear.

    Doug Trumball would go on to meddle with SF again in the speculative and highly emotional Brainstorm (1983), his second feature as a director, only this time he would explore the relationship between science and technology and the more esoteric realm of Heaven and the afterlife. It was another extremely bold and audacious story – about a cumbersome device worn on the head that could record a person’s feelings and emotions so that another could play them back and experience them too. The incredible conceit is that when one important character suffers a massive heart-attack, the film’s hero, played by Christopher Walken, then dons the apparatus and experiences the sensations and trauma of her death, and then the tantalising splendour of what possibly comes afterwards. Critics denounced that film as well, on the grounds of its pandering to formula tropes and teeth-itching sentimentalality, but I loved it. One must also remember that actress Natalie Wood drowned during the production and this not only delayed the film but necessitated some rather hasty and awkward rewriting. Trumball is not the world’s greatest director, but he is a splendid ideas-man and a fabulous ”visualist” whose movies paint vistas of marvellous technological wonder and incredible imagery yet never leave the essential humanity behind. He wears his heart on his sleeve at times and this does seem to rub some commentators up the wrong way … but when such elements are crucial to the narrative, it is difficult to simply dismiss them as being nothing more than gaggingly sentimental.

    Trumball was sidelined after his directorial debut and moved back into the realms of visual effects, with Close Encounters just a few years down the line, and then Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner adding to his small but highly impressive resume. Most recently, of course, he provided his special brand of cinematic magic as photographic effects supervisor on The Tree Of Life for Terence Malick.

    Silent Running, then, is not as great a film as some would love to claim, but it is an interesting, important and eloquent one. It takes too much for granted, ignores some gaping illogicalities, and literally paints its ecological sermonising in big supernova-lit letters across the universe, yet you can't deny that its imagery and its peculiar mood linger. Its final shot is a simply beautiful marriage of image, theme and music – Joan Baez's “Rejoice in the Sun” really bringing a tear to the eye – and its seems only fitting that Trumball would almost mimic in for the climactic shot of Close Encounters. But the movie's best contribution to the ever-evolving SF genre is its massive influence on things from Star Wars, The Black Hole and Alien to the likes of the more recent Moon. And it is highly unlikely that we would have seen R2D2 or the legions of his tin-pot brethren down the line addressed with anywhere near the same level of likeable warmth.

    Silent Running was well-received by Universal, but they had absolutely no idea how to market such an experimental picture, and it vanished from cinema screens as a consequence. Word-of-mouth was what helped it to become the epitome of the cult-movie. Doug Trumball's tentative foray into a bigger universe comes highly recommended as an inspired slice of science-whimsy. For all of its faults, it gets inside you … and its message is a good one.