Silent Running (1972)

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Silent Running (1972)

Post  BoG on Wed Jun 06, 2012 11:47 pm

Douglas Trumbull, who will probably always be best known for his FX contributions to 2001:A Space Odyssey, was still a young man when he directed this as his first film. As such, there is a charming naivety to this feature, as could probably only have been delivered by Trumbull at that point in time. It's about our future, falling in  line with many other sf seventies films such as Soylent Green, but the downbeat themes are flavored with a unique sense of innocence. The Joan Baez singing, cutting in a few times, doesn't help, however.
Most of that strange innocence is exemplified by Bruce Dern as the main character; there are no other actors even remotely like Dern - that's part of the reason for his successful film career - so no one else could have played the part like Dern, not even close. He's the resident gardener (if we sum up his work; he's a botanist, ecologist and so on ) of the last forestry of Earth - complete with small animals such as bunnies - kept in several huge domes near the orbit of Saturn. He and 3 other workers (Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint) are charged with maintaining these and the ships which power it all, until the time when these bio-domes will be returned to Earth. At least, that's Dern's expectation; instead, they receive sudden orders to blow up the domes with nuclear charges.
Dern's co-workers regard all this as just a job, and a tedious one at that, so they are enthusiastic about carrying out their new orders and finally returning home (to better jobs, probably). But Dern is very different; he's the last eco-warrior or nature guide; so, when the domes start to explode one-by-one, we can expect that he will take drastic action. Most of the film, then, features Dern as the only human actor, relating to a trio of small robots that he nicknames Huey, Louie and Dewey. Occasionally, there are audio transmissions from Earth, but it's all just Dern after the first 20 minutes. I found him to be a bit disturbing when I was younger (and some of his actions do suggest a psychotic), but nowadays he comes across as just a little goofy - a sign of how times have changed?
Dern carries this film and it's a big reason for the film's popularity among a select group of sf fans. But, you also have to let it go as some fairy tale in outer space to make it work to a large extent. For one thing, if there is no flora on Earth, how does life go on..? This is never mentioned or delved into. Why are the domes so far from the sun, near Saturn, where there is much less sunlight? Why blow up the domes? - some political upheaval on Earth? Again, the script doesn't bother explaining such details. Trumbull also followed Kubrick's intentions by never showing any scenes on Earth - a clever choice. I agree that this has one of the most touching and memorable finales - as in a final image - among all sf films. BoG's Score: 7 out of 10

Silent Trivia: the title refers to a term for submarines during the war - it was a strategy for making enemy ships think that the sub has been destroyed, like releasing debris or an oil slick; the sub was then in "silent running" mode. Dern's character pulls the same stunt with his ship, the Valley Forge, when he navigates through the rings of Saturn. The robots were played by multiple amputees; the robots' legs were actually the arms of the actors.

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