Silent Running (1971), Dir. Douglas Trumbull
Bruce Dern, a bunch of annoying robots and some trees.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now:
To be completely honest, I had never even heard of it until the Filmspotting podcast did a series on science fiction films from the 1970s. Considering that this is directed by the great visual effects guy Douglas Trumbull, I'm pretty appalled at myself for that. Pre-Viewing:
Bruce Dern is a scientist. He lives on a big spaceship that houses the last remaining forests after all of Earth is paved over. The Man wants to take away his trees. Bruce Dern likes his trees very much. Conflict ensues. Robot shenanigans occur. An environmental message is preached. Everyone in the audience feels very bad for doing their part in killing the planet. Roll credits.
Silent Running is a spectacular looking movie. What else would you expect from the man who did the special effects on 2001: A Space Odyssey? Although the VFX here never quite reaches the level of Kubrick's masterpiece or the still-a-couple-of-years-away Star Wars, they're more than adequate. In fact, they're often quite stunning.
It's a shame that the movie doesn't live up to its visual standards, with a story that, although well-intentioned, comes off as cloying and self-important. Nature good, civilization bad and so on. You know, that old chestnut. The same message from a little movie you may have seen called Avatar. Preservation of the environment is a common theme in science fiction, but it's hard to take seriously when it's being delivered by a major blockbuster movie that probably created more than its fair share of waste.
Bah, I'm just cranky today. Maybe because after I finish typing this sentence, I'm going to have to watch Silent Running. And I really don't think I want to.
I don't write about movies because I enjoy sh*tting on them. I don't write a column where I seek out famous and interesting science fiction films that I've never seen so I can talk about how much I don't care for a forty year old movie that is beloved by many of colleagues and friends, all of whom tend to have good taste. I've been pretty fortunate in my journey through the sci-fi unknown...I've yet to see a movie that didn't offer something to talk about.
And that statement remains true. I didn't like Silent Running. I didn't like it one bit. However, like most pre-Star Wars science fiction, it has the nerve to actually tackle an interesting subject and value ideas above action. It is entirely possible for noble intentions to prevail despite being wedged into a movie that veers on campy (Hell, look at the far more successful Logan's Run from earlier in this series), but that is not the case here. Logan's Run worked because the ultimate message was conveyed with power and conviction, something that felt vital and honest despite being in a movie filled with sexy model-types in jumpsuits and a really, really, really terrible robot. The key problem with Silent Running is that its admirable message, that nature is important and key to understanding what makes us human and so on and so forth, is delivered like a sledge hammer to the head. Instead of a dated, cheesy movie with a theme that still resonates, we get a dated, cheesy movie that feels the need to shout about how important it is at every opportunity.
I like nature too, guys. I just don't need two musical montages about how awesome trees are. Joan Baez has no place in my science fiction, thank you very much.
Silent Running is not without admirable qualities, chief among them is the story itself. As indicated in the pre-viewing section, I knew the film was about the last of Earth's forests being located to handful of space stations after Earth is presumably overtaken by man's destructive ways. I knew that the plot involved government brass deciding to end the trees-in-space program and tree-hugger Bruce Dern fighting back.
I assumed that fight would be a political one. Nope. Dern murders his co-workers, fakes engine failure and pilots the tree-stations into the darkness of space, where rescue will be impossible. Our hero is an ecoterrorist.
Now that's how you make a movie interesting! It's easy to ramble on about how wonderful nature is. It's easy to have a protagonist who stands in front of a bulldozer with a megaphone and shouts "Trees are awesome!" I mean, really...who's going to root against that guy? By making the lead character a murderer, a man who is obviously an unstable misanthrope from frame one, we watch the plot unfold in shades of gray. Sure, he's acting to save the last of Earth's forests, but he's taking lives to do so. I expected Silent Running to climax with Bruce Dern arguing his case in a court room. Instead, he's beating a former acquaintance to death around the thirty minute mark.
Science fiction is a genre that often gets trapped in black and white situations. Good VS Evil. Right VS Wrong. Hero VS Villain. Silent Running has the cojones to have a character fighting for a just cause in the most unjust way possible. It's uncomfortable. It's unsettling. It's shades of grey in the best possible way.
It's a shame the movie looks so damn cheap. Not cheap in a "Oh, it's 1971, give them a break, they didn't have CGI" way, but cheap in a "This is three years AFTER 2001: A Space Odyssey? Really?!" way. I assumed going in that the film would, at the very least, be a spectacle to behold. After all, director Douglas Trumbull was visual effects supervisor on 2001. The man is something of a VFX legend.
This inexplicable cheapness really shoots Silent Running in the foot. It's hard to get involved in the film's plight when the forests our hero is fighting to save look like about ten fake trees on a sound stage. Really? They need three MASSIVE spaceships to house a handful of trees that look like they were plucked from a suburban yard? At the risk of being a backseat filmmaker, wouldn't it have been more powerful, and far more visually exciting, if these ships housed rolling valleys and hills, vast stretches of desert, small oceans, dense woods and snow capped mountains? Granted, it would leave realism at the door, but this would at least showcase the beauty of nature. You know, the thing that the entire movie is about.
We do get Joan Baez warbling on the soundtrack, telling us that "children run through grass" and that we should "harvest and rejoice in the sun" while what looks like stock footage of birds and frogs splashes across the screen. It's a nasty case of telling and not showing. The nature preserves on these spaceships should speak for themselves. They should be majestic. They should represent the entire planet and what we're destroying. Instead, we get some trees and a folk singer to tell us they're great.
Yeah, technical limitations and so on and so forth and this is a classic and I don't know anything and it was 1971 and I don't know what I'm talking about. Sure, it may have been hard to achieve this sense of scope at the time. Maybe the real problem here is not the film, but the passage of forty years.
But that brings up another problem. Shouldn't it be the duty of a filmmaker to create a work that stands the test of time? You work with what you have at the time, but you do what you have to in order to ensure that your film will hold up years down the road. People are still watching Casablanca and Citizen Kane and the Wizard of Oz. More appropriately, people are still watching Metropolis and Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Whatever is dated about them is overcome by other unique elements, which you may know better as that "special something something."
So, no. I will not forgive Silent Running for looking like a bargain basement production because it was made in 1971. That's not an excuse and anyone who falls back on that as a reason to defend anything needs to find a new line of defense quickly. It's just not going to cut it anymore.
Okay. Bruce Dern is fine. His robot buddies are simultaneously annoying and endearing. The climax manages to be equally bleak and hopeful, reflecting the morally unsettling nature of film's main arc. It's admirable that the film is mostly a one-man show, but this leads to limited conflict and thus boredom.
It turns out my prediction in the pre-viewing section was correct. I did not enjoy Silent Running. Part of me feels guilty about this. Surely going into a movie with cynical expectations will lead to a cynical response. Not so. I'd argue the contrary. My lowered expectations gave the film a bigger chance to surprise me. I'm a sucker for movies winning me over. There is no better feeling than a pleasant surprise.
(You want a hint what the next movie I cover is going to be? Well, the next entry in this series is people. It's people!)
Colossus: The Forbin Project
A Boy and His Dog
The Thing From Another World