There was a glorious time in science fiction films, a decade almost exactly, between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars when special effects were reaching new pinnacles of awe, but movies hadn’t yet become blockbuster space adventures. This resulted in movies being made that were thoughtful, socially relevant, and yet completely visually dazzling. They didn’t have to be all laser guns and alien battles, but they could still be in space and have tremendous model work. They could even be movies about tree-hugging hippies living alone with robots in a deep-space terrarium. Well, if they’re 1972’s Silent Running, that’s what they can do. This is the movie that directly influenced Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is especially funny because our lead character is a murderer.
The movie was the brainchild of Douglas Trumbull, the special effects guru who was integral in the landmark special effects created for 2001, despite what Stanley Kubrick’s solely won Effects Oscar might suggest, as well as the Michael Crichton adaptation The Andromeda Strain. He had an idea for a space movie and wanted to direct it himself, and so he was given a modest budget and a short 30-day schedule in which to shoot it. The screenplay ended up being written in turns by Deric Washburn and Michael Cimino (who would go on to write and direct The Deer Hunter, and Steven Bochco (who would go on to create a billion TV shows including Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Doogie Howser, M.D.). To star in the film, Trumbull wanted Bruce Dern, who’d been in quite a few movies already in his career but was certainly not yet the star he’d quickly become. The bulk of the movie is Dern by himself, only with three drone robots which he reprograms to be a little bit more human.
Silent Running features Dern as Freeman Lowell, a genius scientist aboard a research ship called the Valley Forge, one of a small fleet of American Airlines freighters. The ship’s mission, along with other ships, is to grow forests full of vegetation and small animal life in domes. Earth has become barren and desolate and these domes are the last vestiges of the way the world once was. The three other crewman aboard Lowell’s ship (played by Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, and Jesse Vint) are mostly just your average blue collar workers, who don’t care at all about Lowell’s forestry and who basically just tool around the ship in small four-wheelers driving over plants. But Lowell is a very arrogant man who believes that his pleas to continue the program will be answered and that he will be put in charge of it; after all, he’s dedicated the last eight years to it. However, Lowell is gutted when the word from the corporate heads is that all of the forest domes are to be jettisoned and destroyed and all the ships to head back to Earth to be reconfigured for commercial freight.
Lowell can’t bear to see his life’s work and all the life inside of it destroyed, and so he kills one of the crewmen, then jettisons one of the other domes set for explosion while his other two crew guys are on board. He’s killed three people! Then he begins work to send the Valley Forge out beyond Saturn’s rings and hopefully away from the rest of humanity, despite his pretending on the radio that everything was an accident. He then is left totally isolated and begins the process of retrofitting three maintenance drones into companions. They can’t speak, but they can interact on a more human level. While going through Saturn’s rings, Drone 3 is lost, but the other two remain and Lowell names them Dewey and Huey after Donald Duck’s nephews. Things seem to be going great, until he gets word that the company has found him and are coming to retrieve him and blow up the remaining dome. Lowell then realizes, for the sake of the trees, he has to do something drastic.
This is a movie that could only have been made in the early-70s. Its “save the planet” environment message was totally in keeping with the post-Woodstock view of the world. Lowell is even introduced in the movie tending to his garden wearing a white robe and maybe even Birkenstocks, I couldn’t tell. He puts plants well above the lives of his fellow humans and lies about what he’s done for the sake of his work. He’s kind of a psychopath, really. But he’s nevertheless a sympathetic figure and he does what he has to do for science, and we kind of don’t blame him for it. The movie is also dated by having two pop songs sung by folk icon Joan Baez on the soundtrack. Good songs, but they scream “Early ’70s!”
Dern gives a really wonderful performance and does so by having most all of his screentime opposite little robots that don’t speak. The unique way the drones moved was accomplished by having bilateral amputees (people who lost their legs) in a suit and having them walk on their hands. It gives them personality and a fluidity of motion that a simple wheeled or walking robot could not have. And it’s amazing that these drones ARE so likable, and we’re sad when Drone 3 (Louie) gets lost in space, and sad when Lowell accidentally runs over Huey, nearly destroying it. These simple, boxy machines are proof that audiences will personify even the least living-looking of characters. It’s Lowell’s main uniform (a jumpsuit with sponsor patches on it) and his relationship with Dewey and Huey that inspired Joel Hodgson with the premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000; a guy alone floating through space with only little robots he created as companions. Of course, Joel watches bad movies and makes jokes while Lowell is a murderer, but pretty close nonetheless.
The special effects in this movie are really wonderful. Trumbull’s model shots for the ships and the domes are some of the best ever made. While Silent Running didn’t have nearly the budget of 2001, Trumbull still managed to make his effects look impressive and realistic. Even the sets, which were just built inside of large garages, are big enough and lived-in enough to give the film some grandeur. It feels like everything was handmade, and it was, and that’s perfect for a movie like this.
Silent Running is certainly a classic of science fiction and manages to be a kind of bittersweet heartwarming tale despite the bleak stuff implied surrounding it. Lowell’s forest is serene and welcoming and we’d love to live there. And it’s nice to know that it’s floating out there, with Dewey tending the gardens, and will be for a very long time. Douglas Trumbull continued his brilliant effects work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Blade Runner, but he only ever directed one more feature film, the 1983 film Brainscan, which is a shame because if he had this level of imagination and capability on his debut, he should have been up there with the greats.