Retro Review: ‘Silent Running’

Science fiction is frequently used as a genre to tell stories about very real problems we face as a society. In the 1970’s one such problem was the realization we needed to do something about the environment to preserve it from increasing industrialization and commercialization. Having worked as the production designer on the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, Douglas Trumbull sought to make his directorial debut with a project that not only championed the enviromentalism cause but allowed him to show off some effects he did not have ready in time for 2001. Released in 1972, Silent Running has become a cult classic having built a fanbase among lovers of more serious and cerebral science fiction.

Aboard the spaceship Valley Forge, Freeman Lowell is passionate about his responsibility to cultivate six domes that house environments replicating forest-like environments. The hope is this will lead to the restoration of natural plant and animal life back home. When the order comes down to abandon this program Lowell snaps, killing the three men on Valley Forge with him, he jettisons the remaining forest dome in the hopes of continuing his work. As he drifts alone towards Saturn, he grows attached to the two robots he names Huey and Dewey (the Louis robot is lost). Will the lonely scientist be able to survive and continue his mission to restore the natural world.

One of the claims to fame for Silent Running was that it served as an inspiration to Joel Hodgson when he created Mystery Science Theater 3000. Not only because of the plot featuring a man trapped in space accompanied only by mechanical friends, but also in the look. Trumbull’s background as a production designer is on full display as the rich and complex sets (especially the dome enclosed gardens) and models for the ship. This is one of those films which shows off just how powerful expertly crafted practical fx can be. The ships are larger than life and ornate but grounded in reality. They even had American Airline put their logo on the ship to add that extra layer of believability.

This is an example of a type of film like Moon with Sam Rockwell or The Swimmer with Burt Lancaster where the entire production rests on a single actor. Bruce Dern at this point was an actor famous for playing the villain in a number of Westerns, most notably in The Cowboys. But his performance as Freeman Lowell was completely divorced from those previous characters as a soulful scientist who wants to save a world that had been ravaged by industrial interests. While he does kill his shipmates it is necessary for the story and is done in a fit of pure rage and passion. From then on out the bulk of the movie is simply him and his robots masterfully controlled by amputee performers who bring a beautiful sense of humanity to Huey and Dewey.

In the world of 70’s science fiction Silent Running is a prime example of the grounded and thoughtful “thinking man” take on the genre. Led by a soulful performance from Bruce Dern, it has become a solid cult favorite for fans of the genre.