Bruce Dern is running silent and trying to get his five servings of fruits and vegetables.
Silent Running is an early 70s sci-fi film that preaches conservationism while telling a tragic tale of a dystopian future where the Earth is no longer able to support plant life. It’s a classic looking sci-fi film, with an atypical message.
What looks to be a traditional science-fiction film, with spaceships and robots, quickly turns into something else. It seems that the company running these spaceships, which carry the last trees and plants from a doomed Earth are to be jettisoned and turned into commercial vehicles. Treehugger Bruce Dern mutinies and steals the ships with the help of three little robotic drones. And in a strange bit of cross-promotion, Joan Baez sings two original songs for the soundtrack. There’s some action in the trailer, but it’s hard to tell if this is an action film or more of a Robinson Crusoe story based on the trailer below. Either way, let’s run this classic and see what’s what!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Sometime after the turn of the millennium, a series of space vessels carry the last remnants of Earth’s biomes in greenhouse domes outfitted to their hulls outside the orbit of Saturn. The planet has destroyed all the vegetation on itself, and the men that work on these ships are tending to the flora and fauna until they receive orders to return. Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is the caretaker aboard the Valley Forge. The three other crew members don’t have as much respect for the vegetation as he does, as they race their cyclops buggies over the plants, destroying some of his work. They make fun of him as he cleans and washes his fruits and vegetables, mocking his attraction to the “smelly” plants.
The four crew members pass the time by playing pool or card games, as they discuss the upcoming scheduled transmission. Lowell hopes it’s a recall of the ships to return to Earth, but Wolf (Jesse Vint) thinks it’s to announce cutbacks. Lowell gives an impassioned speech about why they should care for the forests that they have, when the transmission comes in. Con Central contacts Valley Forge, Berkshire, and Sequoia and tells them they are to jettison their forests, and self destruct them, returning the ships into commercial use. Lowell is devastated by the news, but Keenan (Cliff Potts), Barker (Ron Rifkin) and Wolf are all excited to finally be going home.
Lowell walks through his forest, touching the plants and visiting with the birds and animals one last time. He returns to the mess hall and argues that they are doing the wrong thing. He also argues that the “crap” the crew eats is synthesized while his meals are grown with his own hands. Keenan and Barker ready the bombs and manually begin planting them in each of the six domes. After four domes are launched into space and destroyed, Lowell cannot take it anymore and makes a stand against Keenan in the fifth dome. They fight and Keenan injures Lowell’s leg, but Lowell ends up killing Keenan. Lowell then locks Barker and Wolf inside the last dome before jettisoning and self-destructing it.
Lowell then fakes a decompression explosion and turns the Valley Forge towards Saturn’s dark side, running from the other ships. Three of the ships drones, which he names Huey, Dewey, and Louie are reprogrammed to help him with the ship and repair his leg. As the ship crashes through Saturn’s rings, Louie is blasted off the hull into space. With the loss of Louie, Lowell has a flashback to killing Keenan and decides to take the other two drones and bury Keenan’s body. He then teaches Dewey and Huey to plant a tree. He spends his time between tending the one remaining forest dome and driving the buggy around the ship.
Becoming bored, Lowell reprograms the drones to play cards with him. But it’s not the same as playing with real people. With the lack of extra domes, Lowell has been eating some of the same synthesized “crap” he chastised the crew members for eating. He throws it out and decides to get some fresh fruit, but when he enters the forest he sees it’s dying, and can’t figure out why. He spends time jogging in the ship, pretending he’s running through beautiful forests on the Earth. Huey reports a problem, so Lowell races one of the buggies to the dome, and accidentally hits the drone. He and Dewey work to repair Huey, but he’ll never be as good as he originally was.
Then one day he receives a transmission from the Berkshire, who has found him. They thought he was dead, and Lowell realizes he will be caught. He suddenly realizes that the lack of light is what is causing the forest to die, so he rigs a series of lights around the trees and plants. He instructs Dewey that it will be in charge of maintaining this last forest, and jettisons the dome. Lowell drifts off with the Valley Forge reminiscing about the crew and the forests, before setting off an explosion that blows he, Huey and the ship into atoms. The final shot is the last dome floating in space, as a drone Dewey tends to a plant with a battered watering can.
“Look at that little girl’s face. I know you’ve seen it. But you know what she’s never going to be able to see? She’s never going to be able to see the simple wonder of a leaf in her hand. Because there’s not going to be any trees. Now you think about that.” – Freeman Lowell indicating a child’s photo on the wall of the galley.
History in the Making
Silent Running marks director Douglass Trumbull’s first foray into directing. He had made his name a few years previous as the special effect supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey. His techniques became the basis for modern motion control special effects used on dozens of sci-fi films, including this one. His only other mainstream directing gig was a decade later on Natalie Wood’s final film, the trippy Brainstorm, which explores the “innerspace” of the human psyche. But, he continued his special effects supervising on some of the most iconic sci-fi films of the next two decades including The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounter of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Blade Runner. His work would influence the next generation of special effects artists, including John Dykstra, who worked as a technician on Silent Running before leading the team at Industrial Light and Magic on Star Wars.
It also marks one of the earliest films in the 70s spate of conservation films. Silent Running presents a bleak future for the denizens of the Earth, but unlike THX 1138 or The Omega Man, it’s not society that has been messed up, but the ecology. This heightened awareness at the beginning of the decade is probably due to then President Richard Nixon raising awareness on environmental issues and creating the Environmental Protection Agency–a United States organization to conduct environmental assessment, research, and education.
As far as science-fiction films go, this is a classic looking film, especially from a special effects standpoint. The look of this film, along with the aforementioned 2001, and Close Encounters would all lead to the revolutionary changes in special effects which would allow a film like Star Wars to show up within 5 years. The model making techniques used by Trumbull and his craftsmen allowed for the creation of realistic and well-photographed spaceships that add to the overall realism of the film.
Additionally the realism of the sets paved the way for a less-pristine version of the future. Historically sci-fi films, especially ones in the future where spacecraft and high-tech machines are used, have a super-clean aesthetic to them. Their technology all looks like it came off the showroom floor yesterday. It’s all shiny and new, even though it’s “in use.” Silent Running was one of the first sci-fi films to make the spaceships look used, and dirty. If this is a film about “long haul truckers in space” things will not always be pristine. Other 70s films would continue this extrapolation, such as Alien–creating a realistic version of used technology–culminating in what many believe is the ultimate evolution of futurism in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner.
Silent Running also introduced the concept of more realistic non-humanoid robots. To date any robot that was not humanoid (meaning shaped like a human, with similar proportions) was built as a prop. Trumbull opted to create a unique look to the drones, but had the creative idea of using amputees inside non-humanoid looking costumes. These actors who were missing their legs, used their arms as the legs of the drone, and therefore were able to impart more subtle performances to the characters of Huey, Dewey, and Louie. This would influence directors like George Lucas who used dwarves as operators for a number of his smaller or oddly-shaped characters.
Science-fiction films are a spectrum of social concerns. Many fall in the middle of the spectrum between no commentary on social issues and overt commentary on social issues. Silent Running is definitely at the top of this scale. It wears its proverbial heart on its sleeve, not pulling any punches with what side of the conservation conversation it falls on. Viewing the film in 2020 it appears very heavy-handed and preachy with its message of saving the forests. And while it seems as if the ending of the film, with Dewey tending the one remaining forest, might have been intended as a hopeful ending–in which the Earth’s forests at least continue to survive somewhere–it reads as very much more of a downer. Out of 18 possible biomes saved (which are depicted on the three ships in the film), only one exists, but now it’s floating off into space beyond Saturn, its power destined to run out eventually. Yikes! So sad!
Silent Running also marked the first of the conservationism/environmentalism sub-genre for sci-fi films. The early 1970s had a quick burst of similar films, most likely sparked by the public’s growing awareness in global climate and pollution issues. Movies such as the short film Ark, Z.P.G. (which stands for Zero-Population Growth and was actually based off a non-fiction book called “The Population Bomb”), and Soylent Green all dealt with issues that Americans specifically were coming to grips with in their daily life. Lack of space, lack of environment, lack of food, along with gas and oil shortages, added to the daily troubles for citizens on top of war, plague and famine.
It’s also a film that puts the corporations in charge of policy. By the early 1970s mega corporations were already stretching their wings and exercising the extent of their reach through political lobbying. Many sci-fi films extrapolated this trend with corporations becoming powerful and unethical entities in the future. Groups like Silent Running’s Con Central, which orders the last forests terminated, or Robocop’s ominous OCP which create the evil ED-209 and hybrid cyborg cop of the title, or the governmental corporation that runs Mega City in Judge Dredd. These organizations are depicted as heartless, uncaring, greedy and usually the enemy of the film. This representation and portrayal of businesses (and sometimes governments) was an out growth of the American mistrust of “the system.” By the early 70s the social systems that were supposedly in place to protect citizens, as well as companies that had once been benign, were beginning to fail, and lose public trust.
The Science in The Fiction
While the technical merits of depicting Silent Running’s spacecraft and robots is strong, the biological science behind the reasoning for uprooting various Earthly biomes and putting them on spacecraft is lacking. First let’s look at Lowell. He’s supposedly been involved with this project for 8 years, yet when the plants suddenly begin dying in the third act it takes him days to come up with the solution that they are lacking light. This also begs the question as the ships have spent a majority of their time out near Saturn, how did the plants have enough light? The reason that flora grows on Earth, besides the temperature and water, is the distance the planet is from the sun. Being an extra 1 billion miles would have to cause some issues there.
I’d also be curious about the impact on Earth. The opening narration states that they “dedicate these last forests of our once beautiful nation, in the hope that they will one day return and grace our foul Earth.” If these ships represent the last of mankind’s foliage, then how is life even surviving on Earth? What’s cleaning the CO2 from the skies and what’s making more oxygen? What’s filtering the water? How are humans able to survive? These questions of course are not important to the story that Trumbull wanted to tell, but are relevant to the future that exists for humanity. The crew all seemed excited to “get back” but to get back to what? They were also happy to exist on synthesized foods, while Lowell ate real fruits and vegetables. Maybe this is generations into a great cataclysm where the current generation has never been outside, or touched the actual Earth.
The Final Frontier
For its time Silent Running presented an underrepresented viewpoint, sharing the worries of a future where people were unable to walk through a forest or taste real fruit. However, its concept seems dated now, with the increased knowledge of the interdependency of so many climate and biological systems. That should not minimize the need for individuals to be concerned about the loss of trees and flowers. Recently a number of YouTube content creators banded together in an attempt to raise global awareness on the need for trees and started a campaign called #TeamTrees where they attempted to raise funds to plant 20 million trees at $1/tree. That campaign succeeded in less than two months because of the concern of global citizens. If you would like to find out more about conservationism or donate money to replenish forests here on earth, I suggest looking at the Arbor Day Foundation and the Sierra Club.
As for Silent Running, it still marks one of Bruce Dern’s high points in his acting career. His passion as Freeman Lowell elicits a strong emotional reaction that is still impressive almost 50 years later. It’s a well meaning film and story that deserves a place in the history of sci-fi films. It set a bar for other creators to be inspired by and to surpass with later films.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.