In the early years of the 21st century Earth has arrived at an equilibrium point, with full employment and a stable environment, but there has been a cost, the sacrifice of all agriculture with food instead provided by stale nutritional composites. The last forests lifted into space, for eight years Freeman Lowell has overseen the preservation project which has commandeered three mighty American Airlines Space Freighters, the Berkshire, the Sequoia and the Valley Forge.
Aboard the Valley Forge, there is friction, Lowell’s frustrated optimism about the future of the forests rubbing against the open hostility of Marty Barker and Andy Wolf while John Keenan attempts to interpose himself between the Lowell and the belligerent duo who spend their days mocking and baiting their target, seeing him as a naïve idealist whose dream collapses when the order is received that the ships are to return to normal duty, the last ecosystems to be jettisoned and destroyed by nuclear charges.
The debut feature of Douglas Trumbull whose concept was shaped and refined by a trio of screenwriters through various drafts, The Deer Hunter’s Deric Washburn and Michael Cimino and Hill Street Blues’ Steven Bochco, his previous experience in complex visual effects working for Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey informed his tale of outsider Freeman Lowell who hijacks the ship and the last living trees and in the silence of a radio blackout makes a run for Saturn.
Released in March 1972 and celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with a 2K restoration from the original negative from Arrow Films, approved by Trumble before his death earlier this year, Silent Running was the counterpart to the glacial and sterile intellectual query of A Space Odyssey which saw a tin can of frozen astronauts dropped into the unimaginable depths of the solar system looking for impossible answers, the Valley Forge instead taking warmth, light and beauty to the stars, carrying meaning rather than seeking it.
Science fiction always looking to the future, environmental awareness had been on the rise since the publication of Silent Spring in the early sixties, reflected in No Blade of Grass, Soylent Green and Phase IV and in Doctor Who in Planet of Giants and The Green Death, concerns which have only become more urgent in the passing decades with extreme weather events caused by climate change and deforestation now commonplace, Silent Running’s relevance undiminished by the decades.
A complex and troubled man who literally carries the burden of the world on his shoulders, Coming Home’s Bruce Dern is Freeman Lowell, struggling with the short-sightedness of a society which sees the forests as a disposable commodity, he alone understanding that they are irreplaceable; forced to kill his crewmates who were preparing to destroy the forests and all the life within them, his conscience offers him no peace.
His only company the two drones he names Dewey and Huey, Louie having been lost in transit of the rings of Saturn, they are played by costumed amputees Mark Persons, Cheryl Sparks, Steven Brown and Larry Whisenhunt, allowing Trumble to create non-anthropomorphic robots in an age when most were humanoid shaped and fell under the broad category of hulking threat or overly cute, a middle ground between The Day the Earth Stood Still’s Gort or Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot.
An influence perhaps on George Lucas and R2-D2, similarly nor are Keenan, Barker and Wolf (Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin and Jesse Vint) trained specialists so much as blue collar workers, essentially space truckers, though lacking Stephen Dorff’s dainty leathers shorts as much as any awareness of the importance of the ecosystem they have been charged to protect, as ill-equipped for their mission as the crew of the Prometheus.
Technically superb, especially considering the modest budget, the production having used a decommissioned aircraft carrier as the principal location, the opening titles use macro photography to present the variety, complexity and beauty of the forest before introducing the incongruous setting in which they exist; if the rings of Saturn are presented as dense particles of dust rather than ice, it is worth considering at that time the planet was no more than a blur in a telescope and that Voyager 2 would not pass Saturn until a decade later in August 1981.
A time capsule of the era it was created, a plea for awareness and change captured most perfectly by the two songs performed by Joan Baez, the voice of a conscience of a generation singing of sunshine, earth and flowers, even with its warning that nature must be protected and preserved Silent Running remains optimistic, not the least because of its depiction of space travel as an everyday reality, fleets of vast vessels floating between the planets, the crew breathing the air and bathing in the waters under illuminated domes beneath the stars.
Silent Running is available on Blu-ray from Arrow now