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Flashback: on 1972’s Silent Running

Nostalgia is a tricky thing. I remember first seeing Douglas Trumbull’s “Silent Running” in grade school. I can’t recall all of the details, but I think it was around 1978/79—which means I was probably 13 and in the eighth grade. My mind’s eye is telling me that my English teacher, Mr. Pollack, showed it on a pull-down screen, over the blackboard, off of one of those old projectors that teachers would roll in from the utility room. Again, it’s been 35 years, so I can’t possibly be certain. What I am positive of is the impression the film made on me. Off of that single viewing, I regularly referred to it for years as probably my favorite sci-fi film ever. I didn’t know who director Douglas Trumbull was, and I doubt I had much recognition of lead actor Bruce Dern either. Also, some lady named Joan Baez sang two haunting songs on the soundtrack. Of course, I am now well-versed in the major accomplishments of this trio, both prior to, and after the making of “Silent Running”. Trumbull was only 29, and directing for the first time, but he had already made a name for himself as an effects supervisor for Stanley Kubrick’s landmark “2001: A Space Odyssey” from 1968. 35 year-old Dern, had been a fixture in film and on television for a dozen years at that point, but was still a half dozen years away from his Oscar nomination for playing the tragic Captain Bob Hyde in Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home”. And, of course, 31 year-old Joan Baez was already a GIANT of the folk singing movement for over a decade by 1972. These three were responsible for making “Silent Running” what it was: a hippy/dippy, super pro-environment space saga. Throw in three little “robots” monikered “Huey, Dewey and Louie”—and you are tagging the psyche of a young man for more than a score and a half in years. But does it hold up as I approach the age of 48? Well, yes and no.

It’s sometime in the future, and the Earth is barren of all plant life because of pollution. The only remaining trees, flowers and other forms of greenery, are contained in some enormous, dome-like greenhouses attached to a fleet of space freighters near the orbit of Saturn. A quartet of workers on the spaceship Valley Forge have been traveling for months, and are itching to go home. The oddball of the group is the monk-like botanist, Freeman Lowell(Mr. Dern). Lowell meticulously tends to the forests, while the others couldn’t care less. He consumes fresh fruit and vegetables that he grows himself, while the rest happily chomp down synthetic food. His partners race “space buggies” all around the gigantic ship’s cargo bay, while Lowell swims in the greenhouse rain forest. Freeman is consistently the polar opposite of his co-workers. Then a catastrophic order comes over the ship’s radio. It seems that the maintaining of the dome forests has been deemed too expensive, and the crews are ordered to jettison them into space and detonate them with a nuclear charge—upon which the freighters would be returned to commercial service. While the other men are ecstatic to be returning home, Lowell becomes distant and forlorn. He can’t fathom a life without the simple pleasure of a leaf in his hand. As the others tend to planting the charges that will destroy the trees and wildlife, Freeman makes the decision to block their entry into one of the domes. He has a confrontation with John(Cliff Potts), the crew-mate who seems to understand him the most. When it turns into a violent scuffle, Freeman is injured and John is killed. Bleeding profusely from his leg, Lowell is still able to save one dome by trapping his remaining two mates in the next-to-last forest—just as it is blasted away from the ship with the detonation already set. It explodes, and Lowell is the only team member of the Valley Forge left alive. And it’s up to him and his trio of robot drones to rescue the last of all plant life known to man.            

Douglas Trumbull would never become a great director(he would helm only one other film: 1983’s ill-fated “Brainstorm”), and neither of his two features would be financial hits. But you have to admire his ambition with a project like “Silent Running”. And it was somewhat of critical hit that would go on to become a beloved cult classic. Mr. Trumbull would go on to renowned special effects work on films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Blade Runner” and “The Tree of Life”. And extra kudos to Trumbull for employing bilateral amputee performers to work as actors inside of the robot drone “suits”. Also, it’s kind of funny to listen to Bruce Dern(in a special DVD interview)call his playing of Freeman Lowell as one of his first “good-guy” roles—he murders three innocent men! But his kooky, loner performance—if occasionally over-the-top—is still quite effective. He easily stands out from the rest of the group…as he should. And the ethereal Joan Baez singing of both “Silent Running” and “Rejoice in the Sun” really sets the tone for the flower-child feel of the motion picture. It may date it horribly for some, but to others it will represent a nifty time-capsule of the period. And the old-school special effects work of spaceship models and trick photography is a welcome flashback to a time before fancy, computer generated effects. Even if it is a bit creaky at times. And the fact that a sizable percentage of the interiors of the spaceship Valley Forge, was shot on a soon-to-be scrapped, decommissioned aircraft carrier by the name of the USS Valley Forge? Priceless. So, if the watching of “Silent Running” in 2013 doesn’t quite match up with my 1978 golden-hued nostalgia…no big deal. It was still a pretty sweet backwards journey to a simpler time when preserving the environment seemed paramount to a boy just reaching his teen years. Actually—maybe not all that much has changed after all.    Grade:  B  

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