My title might sound like a joke, but the philosophy is provocative, puzzling and profoundly poignant. It's this Zen question that we explore in "Silent Running", a film that was way ahead of its time and still is, on many levels. Or as lead actor Bruce Dern said in a recent interview: "It'll continue to be relevant until somebody cleans this place up, and no one has done that yet."
Plot summary: Some time in the "next millennium" (i.e. THIS millennium for those keeping time), humans have ruined the planet to the point that all of earth's forests, wildlife and cute bunnies are reduced to a handful of habitats kept alive in orbital biodomes, more of a curiosity--or as we learn, a nuisance--than anything else. Our hero "Lowell" (Bruce Dern) is among a team of glorified warehouse workers keeping the domes operational. Then one day the management announces without explanation that it's time to close shop, jettison Earth's last forests, nuke them, and terminate the mission. Everyone is selfishly overjoyed at ending their long shift in space, but Lowell decides to... shall we say... resist.
It's a fabulous premise which is very lucidly and realistically presented, even though cynics may have dismissed it as a fantasy "eco-thriller" alongside other great 70s films like "The China Syndrome", "The Andromeda Strain", "Logan's Run" and even "Planet of the Apes". But for my money, "Silent Running" hits closest to home because the story is chillingly practical. It's a very minimalistic film, forsaking the heart pounding action of the aforementioned films for a quieter, more claustrophobic & personal story of 1 human engaged in silent running (the submarine practice of playing dead in order to throw pursuers off the trail). Here we get basically 90 minutes of Bruce Dern talking to himself and to inanimate objects in essentially 1 long, passionate monologue that will burn itself into your brain.
32 DAYS, A SHOESTRING BUDGET & AN ABANDONED AIRCRAFT CARRIER
is all it took. Well, that plus a load of creativity and a labor of love. Directed by Douglas Trumbull who did the special effects for "2001 A Space Odyssey", "Close Encounters" and "Blade Runner" but no film directing prior to this, this movie was part of a financial experiment by Universal Studios: give 5 young filmmakers a tiny amount of money each ($1 million - not even 1/10th the budget of Star Wars) and let them do whatever they wanted, without studio interference or oversight, as long as they stayed under budget. The 4 other films in this experimental group were George Lucas's "American Graffiti", Peter Fonda's "The Hired Hand", Dennis Hopper's "Last Movie", and Milos Forman's "Taking Off". Personally I think "Silent Running" was the best of the crop, certainly the most ambitious, and alongside the others it proved the experiment an artistic success (though a commercial meh).
As you're watching this movie you'll be blown away by the enormous sets and staging, undoubtedly the most authentic spaceship interiors we've ever seen because guess what, it wasn't fake. The space station "Valley Forge" shown in the movie was actually the abandoned aircraft carrier "Valley Forge" which Trumbull rented for a paltry $2000/week. (Seriously! Imagine for the cost of renting a nice beach house you can vacation on a freakin aircraft carrier). And the whole thing was shot with just 1 or 2 takes for each scene to save on film, processing & time. That meant Bruce Dern had to get his acting right, the camera had to capture all the action, and the cinematography had to work like a charm which it apparently did because I couldn't find a single flaw. 32 days of shooting, with virtually zero post production is all it took. And last but not least we have the incredible "robotics" which you will never forget...
Actually wait. I don't want to ruin it for you, so I won't tell you how they did the adorable robots Huey, Dewey and Louie. I'll just say the whole time I was watching the movie, I was bouncing between the powerfully sentimental charm of these characters vs utter confoundment at how they created such realistic mechanical lifeforms that look like television sets propped up on penguin flippers. Trumbull's vision of technology was not supposed to be sterile and lifeless, as with every robot in scifi history up to that point, but he wanted to create something instantly personable without looking anything like a human. He succeeded brilliantly, and the robots in this film directly inspired a new face of robotics in cinema such as R2D2 in Star Wars. I leave you with the mystery of how Trumbull & his crew pulled it off. Google the answer after the movie ends.
Innovative designs and cinematic creativity aside, this story is just plan powerful. If you have kids, please show this to them immediately. Or if you're a grownup who still has the idealism of a child, then pop yourself a huge bowl of organic popcorn (avoid that synthetic butter sludge) and settle in for a life altering experience. This is the kind of film that keeps dreamers alive in our increasingly terrifying technological swamp. Whether you're a tree hugger or just someone who can appreciate the beauty of things that most people disregard, as well as the importance of fighting to preserve these things, "Silent Running" will leave you speechless.
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