Silent Running (1972) – Douglas Trumbull

Special effects genius Douglas Trumbull takes on directorial duties for this classic from the 101 Sci-Fi movies, aided in the special effects department by the legendary skills of John Dykstra. Bruce Dern plays Freeman Lowell a caretaker/gardener on the Valley Forge, an American Airlines Space Freighter. Fans will recognize a number of models and sets that were later re-used for the television series Battlestar Galactica.

Lowell looks after the plants and animals, watching over them, for the past 8 years, until they can return to Earth and re-seed a nature-free Earth with them. He doesn’t always get along with his fellow crew. He’s an optomist, a fighter at least where Mother Nature is concerned. He’s willing to lay down his life for them.

When word comes down to abandon and destroy the forests they are carrying to return the vehicles to commercial service, Lowell is troubled, pushed, and urged to a course of action he can’t believe he is being forced into. His crew is simply happy to go home, they’re happy with the standards of life on Earth now, whereas Lowell wants flowers, trees, green and colors.

He’s forced into murder, saving the only dome that he can, and he and his three robot companions, Huey, Dewey, and Louie (played by multiple amputee performers in interesting costumes) strive to keep this one part of nature alive. He also reprograms them, and as they change and adapt, they become almost human characters (including learning how to play poker), making their fates that much more heartbreaking.

Freeman knows all along that what he did was wrong, even if it was for the right reasons, but those decisions weigh on him for the entire film, leading him closer and closer to the decisions of the film’s final minutes.

bruceIt’s easy to classify him as a hippie, or even an eco-terrorist but is he really? He’s conservationist. He’s preserving the last unique vestiges of a planet that we seem intent on completely destroying. Maybe he’s the only smart one left… But he truly regrets the course of action he was forced to take, he simply doesn’t understand how anyone could put greed and money over something like preserving the planet, or at least the remnants of its natural state. He’s also a bit of a slob. I’m just saying.

The special effects, and designs are great, there’s an authenticity to the feel of the ship, the droids. It’s pretty well-realized world, and Trumbull does some very nice work.

The one thing I didn’t really care for was the Joan Baez tunes. They may have worked for the time, and that may be questionable as well, but they tend to jar me right out of the film every time I watch it. I do like the score by Peter Schickele though, it’s quiet, poignant and has the tendency to be sad and hopeful at the same time.

I do love the film’s final shots, with Dewey amidst the forest, and then a credit roll them precedes a similar one to the one Spielberg uses in Close Encounter of The Third Kind (which of course Trumbull worked on)…

What were your thoughts on this one?


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