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Silent Running

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Douglas Trumbull
Bruce Dern
Cliff Potts
Ron Rifkin
Jesse Vint
Steven Brown
Bottom Line: 
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 “Silent Running” was made during a strange time for the American studio system of the 1970s: “Easy Rider” had recently been an unexpected big hit, making over $19 million despite its independent nature, its mainly ad- libbed dialogue and a low-budget, generally avant-garde, freewheeling approach. The film ushered in the era of what came to be termed ‘New Hollywood’, which saw many films continuing to be made within the studio system while using production methods that attempted to artificially replicate the feel and style of the cinema of the counterculture through the tactic of employing new or experimental filmmakers to work on quirky, unusual projects with very little money behind them, but which left these filmmakers with complete artistic control of the outcome. In the early seventies, Douglas Trumbull had never directed a film, but he was much associated with the special effects team that had worked on Stanley Kubrick’s ground-breaking classic “2001: A Space Odyssey”. As part of an experiment by Universal Studios, he found himself with $1,350,000 and complete artistic freedom to make his first feature film. The studio had picked him as one of five emerging raw talents who were all given similar small amounts of money and then left largely to get on with it. Unfortunately, the ‘experiment’ extended to not bothering to market any of these films and relying on ‘word of mouth’ in an attempt to follow the release pattern of true independent cinema. In the case of “Silent Running” this approach didn’t really work, and the film was not the underground hit its makers would have hoped it to be.

Although not a commercial success at the time, everybody who did get to see the film when they were young (usually from subsequent TV showings) remembered it. In many ways it was the complete antithesis to “2001”, which was a big studio picture that was made with massive resources and on a huge budget, but which dealt with the subject of Man’s place in the Universe in the most uncompromisingly lofty and remote terms, using largely abstract, non-verbal narrative methods.

Trumbull’s film starts from the same premise as Kubrick’s: it shows us a future in which man has struck out into the solar system on huge crafts set adrift in space; but rather than the detached, emotionless explorers of “2001”, “Silent Running” pictures its astronauts as ordinary guys, employed to do a dull job to which they have a very similar attitude to the millions of us who clock on each morning – true, they’re professionals, but even so, they’re more anxious to get home to their families after a long stint away -- just as would be, say, an oil rig worker after his shift on a North Sea platform.

These guys let off steam by racing around the vast cargo bay on-board their ship, the Valley Forge, on little all-terrain buggies; they play poker, or pass the time playing pool. The ship itself looks monolithic yet functional; it is the unflashy, utilitarian design we’d become familiar with by the end of the seventies thanks to Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (after which, the style would become virtually the norm for films set on spacecraft in the far future that wanted to remain grounded in something approaching reality), but the visionary Douglas Trumbull got there first.

The mission these workmanlike space farers have found themselves lumbered with would have particularly resonated with the followers of the emerging ecological outlook prevalent in the early-seventies, but is just as relevant today -- if not more so. Here, a polluted Earth has become unfit to sustain the natural environment and the small crew of the Valley Forge has been entrusted with the preservation of the remainder of the planet’s natural resources. Literally: the rainforests of Earth have been relocated to the inside of several vast greenhouses -- geodesic domes attached to the outer rim of the craft like giant Christmas baubles; the crew are charged with maintaining the forests in orbit around Saturn, until such time as the planet is fit enough to have them returned as part of an eventual refoliation programme.

This all sounds very idealistic, but Trumbull’s future world is still recognisable as our own flawed one, despite the sophisticate technology at the centre of it: most of the crew who have been assigned this mission, don’t really care about it. They are maintenance men first and foremost, whose main concerns are with the here and now. Only one man aboard the ship is really devoted to the cause and takes the mission seriously: the ship’s botanist and one-man forest ranger, Freeman Lowell (a standout, career-making performance from Bruce Dern -- until then only known for ‘bad guy’ roles).

Lowell is largely a loner, who doesn’t share the dull concerns and prosaic values of his three colleagues, who in turn view him askance as something of an oddball. Lowell spends more time talking to the creatures in the greenhouse forest he tenderly waters and feeds than he does the other people aboard the ship; he’s given to swimming naked in the forest lakes and wanders around most of the time dressed in a robe that gives him a distinctly monkish air – something like a hippyish St Francis of Assisi. The other men look on bemused as Lowell insists on the antiquated and eccentric habit of eating fresh food harvested from the gardens by his own hand, rather than consuming the bland, synthetic blocks of tasteless protein issued them from an on-board vending machine; the others would rather use the tenderly cultivated stretches of grass Lowell has been nurturing and carefully watering teach day to recklessly race their buggies across. Lowell sees himself as a custodian of the Earth’s precious resources. He has the Conservationist’s Pledge pinned to the wall beside his bunk and looks forward to the day when the Valley Forge brings its green treasure home and Earth authorities recommence their ‘Parks and Forests System’ (with him as director) …

The screenplay for “Silent Running” is credited to three people: “The Deer Hunter” screenwriters Deric Washburn and Mike Cimino, and “Hill Street Blues” developer Steve Bochco -- all at this stage still to attain the recognition which would later accrue to them. Yet the movie is clearly a deeply personal one for director Douglas Trumbull, who is unmistakably the creative force driving the entire project: the screenplay is actually the result of Trumbull simply cherry-picking the best script ideas from the work of all three of the screenwriters he commissioned for the project, all of whom were working from his own brief outline which was originally to have been about an lone astronaut making first contact with aliens. The character Bruce Dern plays reflects the soft-spoken loner of Trumbull’s own inclinations, and the film sums up the apparent contradiction that seemed to exist behind this environmentally-conscious, hippy twenty-something FXs genius,who combined a love of nature with the clear-thinking, analytical mind of a problem-solving inventor or engineer.

The genesis of the “Silent Running” project probably goes right back to Trumbull’s earlier work for Kubrick, and is in many respects a conscious attempt by the 29 year-old to present a more emotionally engaged alternative to “2001: A Space Odyssey”. That film offered a grandiose, Wagnerian vision of Mankind guided across millennia by unknowable alien forces and transforming itself, through a communing with technological progress, into a mystical super-race of star children beyond space and time, knowledge or reason. Although the film is an undoubted masterpiece -- a psychedelic mystical odyssey rooted in retro-futurism and its clinically realised visions of technology – Kubrick’s pessimistically-inclined, chess player’s exactitude was rooted in the presumption of a heuristic, computational ‘top down’ approach to artificial intelligence, far removed from integrated experience itself. The intelligent computer of the film, HAL 9000 (the name, an acronym derived from the phrase Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer), embodies the then popular view that with enough computational power ‘sentience’ might appear in computers naturally as an emergent property of increased intelligence. The fact that HAL goes on to murder or attempt to murder the crew of the Discovery in “2001” reflects the remote otherness at the heart of this concept, which imagines that intelligence and therefor consciousness can be built and programmed from scratch from enumerable suites of elaborately wired circuits made from microscopic chips.

Contrast the characterless coldness of Kubrick’s sterile future environment with that of Trumbull’s: “Silent Running” displays a humanity that is not much different from our own -- short-sighted and deeply flawed -- and a vision of the technology it has created that is a recognisable outgrowth, both of short-term consumer needs (a Coca Cola logo painted on one of the tetrahedron cargo caskets in the background of the Valley Forge’s cargo bay tells us more about just how little human sensibilities are presumed to have changed than any dialogue scene could) and the misplaced cost-value logic of finance and big business. In the film, the company entrusted with the mission to preserve Earth’s ancient forests contacts the ship’s crew and tells it that they are to jettison the geodesic greenhouse domes housing the remaining forests, and nuclear detonate them in space! The ship is being returned to ‘commercial use’ and there is no longer a will or an interest in spending money to preserve something that the Earth’s population no longer has an interest in. Lowell’s colleagues are ecstatic to be going home early but Lowell is crestfallen and distraught, he sees the forests and their fauna as having an intrinsic value beyond that which can be evaluated and costed in financial terms.

When his three colleagues enthusiastically prepare to destroy the domes, Lowell feels duty-bound to protect them, resorting to desperate measures in order to do so. He tries to block the entrance to the main rainforest dome, but becomes engaged in a fight with one of the other crew members (Cliff Potts) and eventually kills him. To stop the others carrying out their instructions, he then jettisons and destroys one of the other domes while they’re still inside it setting the detonator timers.

So here we meet the central conundrum of this film, which is that the hero of it is a triple murderer! Not many movies could cope with this uncomfortable fact, and would at least seek to mitigate it by characterising the victims as thoroughly unlikable people and as therefor somehow ‘deserving’ of their fates. The genius of “Silent Running” is that it avoids such dubious methods. We initially identify with Dern’s character, even though we can see that he is the one crew member who doesn’t fit with the general attitude of his peers. The other three crewmen (played by the aforementioned Potts, a young Ron Rifkin [later of “Alias” fame] and Jesse Vint), are clearly indifferent to and quite bemused by Lowell’s devotion to the forests and its wildlife, but their lack of concern or interest in such matters is placed in a context in which any engagement at all with biodiversity or with nature are presented as being recondite and eccentric pastimes, and as far removed from the everyday concerns of people such as the other crew members on-board the ship as the interests of someone who devotedly studied some obscure area of 14th century social politics would be to most of us. Thus, we can identify with Lowell’s sadness and alienation even though at the same time, we can also understand why the others are not that bothered. Ultimately though, the fact that one of the men is completely puzzled as to why the thought of his little girl never being able to see a real tree should be considered such a big deal by Lowell, makes us realise that these people have lost something precious through their total disregard for anything but the concerns of the immediate present.

That, of course, still doesn’t mean that they deserve to die. But the fact is Lowell is truly passionate about his pledge to conserve an environment for the benefit of future generations that he feels is so precious and irreplaceable that it fundamentally separates him from his companions aboard the Valley Forge, as well as the rest of humanity back home, and he feels like he is left with little choice in his actions. This is one of few films to present a sympathetic account of such idealism, but it doesn’t draw back from the devastating consequences or try to excuse them. The screenplay even has the one crew member Lowell was forced to kill with his own hand be the only one who was ever prepared to indulgence him his views or to express any sympathy when the news comes through that the crew must destroy the domes. Freeman Lowell never really recovers from any of those acts of premeditated murder; Trumbull periodically edits in brief flashbacks of them which function as memories of the dead men, placing them into key scenes throughout the rest of the picture as a simple device that indicates that we are seeing events entirely from Lowell’s perspective, indeed from inside his head, and that he is haunted by guilt for what he has felt it necessary to do for the ultimate good of mankind. In fact, the attempt to atone for what he has done is deeply tied in with the film’s other main concern – the emergence of artificial life -- in an unexpectedly profound way.

Also pottering about the Valley Forge, largely ignored by the crew in the beginning, are three unprepossessing, box-like maintenance droid units. Surely the most memorable thing about the entire film, the concept and realisation of these machines are Trumbull’s real masterstroke, and best define what sets the film apart from Kubrick’s approach with regard to the film’s philosophy of mind.

The droids concern themselves exclusively with repairs and general maintenance during the first half of the film, which is what they were conceived and designed for by their inventors. Soon after Lowell is forced to cut himself off from the rest of the human race and sets out aboard the Valley Forge alone, with no human company whatsoever, acting as a lone cosmic caretaker for the planet Earth’s inheritance, despite there being no one in the outer reaches of the solar system to appreciate that wonder but himself, he is forced to re-programme the three droids to act as surgeons in an operation on his leg, after it was injured during the fight to stop the destruction of the rainforest-harbouring geodesic dome. The sequence in which we witness the droids working together to patch up Lowell’s leg is the first step in their emergence as individuals. We see their pneumatic manipulator arms – originally intended for soldering panels to the outside of the ship or conducting repair work – now programmed to be able to deal with the practicalities of conducting very difficult manoeuvres relating to surgery, and subsequently achieving the appearance of co-operation and attentiveness, as the droids respond to their programming by giving the appearance of ‘caring’, such as one instance when the manipulator arm apparently gingerly taps at Lowell’s foot as though the unit in question had some concern for the pain that might be caused him during the procedure. Next, Lowell holds a burial and funeral service for his murdered colleagues, expressing regret in an emotional address, as their bodies are laid to rest, for what he has done. But it is the droids that dig the graves, ‘carefully’ lower the bodies inside them and stand ‘respectfully’ at the gravesides while Lowell gives his farewell speech.

I’ve said that the droids ‘give the appearance’ of being co-operative and I’ve put the words ‘carefully’ and ‘respectfully’ in inverted commas above, but the point about how this film seems to handle the emergence of artificial minds is that it is inextricably embedded in a social context. Lowell puts new programming into the units but it is the actions this causes them to carry out which starts more and more defining them as individuals with minds of their own. As Lowell puts further new programming instructions into them which relate to activities that he would’ve normally indulged in with his former colleagues, the drones become recognisable as mindful entities, if only slightly above the level of pet dogs. This is a vision of mind rooted in the notion of intentionality – as something that is defined by the role that actions play in activity.

This intentional stance to mind says that we learn about other minds through the “aboutness” of their actions. There is interconnectedness between all the players involved – the droid units and Lowell himself – which is crucial for the gradual appearance of conscious-like behaviour, and which is an extension of the ecological and environmental point about the interconnectedness of life and the biosphere. The droids’ are programmed to share each other’s programming and to communicate with each other and be aware of each other, so that they naturally share a social context that results in them being able to ‘talk’ between themselves (although to the human ear this sounds like nothing more than a series of clicks and clunks, like an old fax machine). At the same time, each unit is slightly different and so Lowell comes to recognise them as individuals and eventually actually names them (Huey, Dewey and Louie -- after Donald Duck’s nephews!). When Louie is destroyed while conducting repairs on the hull of the ship, the others are ‘aware’ of the loss, and when Huey is injured in a buggy accident and has to be patched up by Lowell, Dewey is reluctant to leave his companion’s side. Lowell also teaches Dewey to plant trees and water the forests, to carry on his work after he is gone. This is a far cry from the pessimistic vision of artificial intelligence that's provided by the murderous superior intellect that was HAL 9000 in Kubrick’s film.

Trumbull was inspired by the 1932 Todd Browning film “Freaks” in designing the droids. He used bilateral amputees like the one seen in Browning’s odd movie, in order to create the illusion that there couldn’t possibly be human beings inside the tiny box-shaped units. At the same time, the waddling walk and the expressiveness of the machines’ movement instantly creates the impression of their distinctiveness and individuality thanks to the performances of the three amputees working them. The whole concept has been hugely influential, not least in the conception of R2D2 in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” movies. Perhaps the single cleverest move Trumbull made in the design of these droids is to resist the temptation of giving them ‘cute’ human-like faces. The expressiveness of the human face is the environmental cue we’re most sensitive and attuned to and it would have been all too easy to have fallen into the trap of endowing the units with large droopy eyes or making them instantly likable, like tottering live-action cuddly toys or something like that, from the get-go. The whole point about the film is that, by the final scene, when we’re left watching Dewey, droid No 2, now alone inside the last remaining greenhouse dome, tenderly watering a bush from a child’s battered watering can and inspecting some planted seeds, we have come to accept this clunking, walking microwave oven, with no obvious human facial characteristics whatsoever, as deserving of being considered a completely thinking, feeling entity; and the really moving and profound thing is that not only does the last Earth forest still exist, but that even though Lowell has gone, and the dome is adrift in space, it still has value -- because there is still someone around who cares about it.

The extras on this Blu-ray presentation from Masters of Cinema concern themselves with the background to the film, its production design and effects work and the experience of the crew in shooting it across 32 days. There is a commentary track with director Douglas Trumbull and lead actor Bruce Dern and also a 50 minute documentary shot in 1972 by Charles Barbee which is about the collaborative effort needed to shoot a low budget film of this nature. Nevertheless it also reveals lots of fascinating footage from behind the scenes, and even from the studio session during which Joan Baez recorded the two folk tracks which are important elements in the film’s homely, interconnected vision of humans in space.

There is a 30 minute interview with Trumbull, and also an 11 minute interview with Bruce Dearn. All this and the rather nice-looking 25-page booklet of writings by director of photography Charles Wheeler, special designs collaborator Wayne Smith and composer Peter Schickele (whose gorgeously refined and gentle score some people are saying has dated, but which is actually vital to the film’s unique atmosphere and deliberately plays against the apparent harshness of the space faring environment), which along with this booklet’s copious illustrations, behind the scenes photos and design sketches, helps give a complete and comprehensive understanding of the circumstances under which the film was conceived and made.

We learn just what an astonishing achievement the movie is, given that Trumbull had never directed before and really had little idea of what he was doing, relying at first on the knowledge and expertise of those around him to get through the days. Despite this, Trumbull established an efficient method of working in which he shot exactly what he needed for the picture. Dern compares his style of working to Hitchcock, with whom he had previously collaborated on the great British director’s final film, “The Family Plot”. The genius move of saving money by using an aircraft hangar and a real decommissioned aircraft carrier for the interiors of the ship (with specially remoulded doorways to give it a slightly futuristic design) and the problems this caused for Charles Wheeler in lighting it; the design of the droids and the casting of the paraplegics needed to play them; the model designs, particularly the inspiration for the geodesic domes which Trumbull took from those he’d seen at the Japanese Expo in Osaka in 1970 and from some botanical gardens in Missouri; and the front projection screen system used to project the starscape behind the domes; these are just some of the main points covered in exacting detail across the whole set.

In addition, there is a theatrical trailer and the option of watching the film with just its music and effects track if you should wish to do so. The HD transfer is a natural- and mostly fine-looking rendition of this 1972 film, with bold blacks and a pleasing amount of extra detail, the one drawback of which is that it makes some of the effects look a little more transparently artificial-looking. A few scenes look excessively ‘swarmy’ every now and then, but generally the film fares amazingly well in high definition. The mono audio track is clear and punchy although briefly goes slightly out of synch at one stage on my review copy. Hopefully this will be fixed on the finished copies. There are also optional subtitles for the hard of hearing available.

“Silent Running” is a film that still often divides many SF fans: some find it to be one of the best movies in the genre, others point to some of the more unlikely aspects of the story (that it should take a botanist so long to realise that forests need sunlight when the flora starts dying after the ship travels beyond Saturn, for one thing) as a sign of its inherent flaws; but with Bruce Dern managing to give such a compelling and emotional performance in the company of only a couple of clunky plastic crates that waddle for the majority of the picture, it’s hard not to be awed and charmed in equal measure by the audacity of Trumbull’s feat in getting the movie off the drawing board let alone the inventiveness and vision that went into making any of it work at all. “Silent Running” surely deserves its classic status and pristine copies of this Masters of Cinema Blu-ray edition from Eureka Entertainment (available in a Limited Edition Steel Book edition) should be preserved in a special geodesic library in space, until such time as the human race decides it is ready for the film industry to refurbish the planet with intelligent, imaginative films once again.

Read more from Black Gloves at his new blog: Nothing But The Night!

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