Aphelion Issue 295, Volume 28
June 2024 --
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Run Silent, Run Free
Douglas Trumbull's "Silent Running"

by Daniel C. Smith

Welcome to Retrograde, where I take a look at movies and novels that somehow slipped under the radar or have faded too far into memory or for whatever reason I feel deserve a closer look by the dedicated sci-fi fan. We are going to start off by taking a look at one of my very favorite movies I saw while growing up (this movie is so old-- I originally saw it at a drive-in!). Originally released in 1971, the movie Silent Running has recently been re-released on DVD (Universal Pictures), and although the movie remains a cult favorite, I feel that the film is a true classic of the genre and deserves more credit for what it contributed to the field of sci-fi and filmmaking in general than it is usually attributed.

Directed by Douglas Trumbull (who cut his teeth as a special effects man on Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi and theatrical 2001-- the Jupiter sequence) and starring Hollywood archetypal bad-guy Bruce Dern in his first non-villain role, Silent Running boldly goes where few science fiction movies went way back then (or since). The script had its genesis while Trumbull was working on 2001-- yet his vision of the future is almost diametrically opposed to Kubrick's more civilized (and sometimes more sterile) presentation of humanity and machine in the not so distant future. Trumbull's vision, in which humans are far from perfect and less than responsible with their world (i.e., humans haven't kept pace with technology), is probably a more realistic assessment of our journey into the future and made for one incredible movie, yet the film has never received the critical acclaim that it so richly deserves.

Silent Running's budget was also in diametric opposition to Kubrick's masterpiece, yet Trumbull and crew came through with a powerful celluloid statement of their own that has fared as well or better the test of time than the well-funded 2001.

The movie's major premise revolves around the removal of what little remains of various from the various ecosystems across our planet, the Earth having become too fouled to allow for their survival. Enclosed in domes and blasted out into space until such a time as when the Earth has been cleansed enough to reintroduce the fragile flora and fauna (and some wildlife) back into the planetary bio-sphere, the domes are attached to ships whose orbit carries them to Saturn (presumably to stay out of the way of the commercial shipping lanes). The project is headed by botanist Lowell Freeman (Dern's character), who, after eight years of tending the bio-spheres in Saturn's shadow, learns of plans to destroy the forests in order to return the ships to commercial use. Obviously this decision does not sit well with Freeman, who seems to be the last human being in the solar system who truly understands the value of what they carry in the domes, and what is about to be lost… forever.

What follows is one man's journey to the edge of what it means to be human and to the gates of hell (odd how often those two paths parallel-- especially in science fiction)… and possibly it is also a journey down the path to redemption, although that is an individual decision you will have to make for yourself.

The movie was shot on an abandoned and soon-to-be-scuttled aircraft carrier, the Valley Forge (the same name as the ship in the movie), which had its corridors and decks modified by wood, paper-Mache and foam rubber. The space scenes, shot years before Dreamworks or CGI, were magnificently produced by… well, literally, it was all done with mirrors (sort of) and inventive camera techniques-- and of course incredibly detailed models, but the resulting space shots are utterly fantastic, even by today's standards. The garden scenes were filmed in converted garages in Conaga Park and all of these clips were woven into a movie by master film editor Aaron Stell.

A side note: the original television series Battlestar Gallactica used stock footage from Silent Running and referred to the ships as “Agro-ships', the source of all the fresh food for the fleet. The new BG has one such botanical ship in the fleet, and its design is most assuredly inspired by the domed garden-ships of Silent Running.

From these modest stage settings the cast and crew paint a stark and desperate picture of the future, one whose image is made all the more compelling by the performance of Dern and the three drones (miniature maintenance robots), played by four different teenagers (all double-amputees, necessary because of the size of the drones). Their performances inside casings of (once again) wood, paper-Mache and foam rubber formed to look like robots is transcendent, and the scenes of Freeman interacting with them are simply priceless-- I seriously doubt that many actors besides Dern could have pulled those scenes off; Dern is able to evoke a great deal of sympathy from the viewer for his tragically-flawed character-- a true archetypal anti-hero, the bane of science fiction-- and after only a short while I felt as if I were as personally vested in the survival of the forests as he (Freeman) was.

The race to save the forests represents the epic struggle of good and evil, of the enlightened versus the ignorant. The generation that was coming of age in the seventies had grown up in the shadow of some the greatest civil unrest ever witnessed in this country and now this generation suddenly found themselves thrust to the forefront of the angry mob and they were eager to make their own mark. Many of us growing up at that time could identify with Freeman, who at times seemed overwhelmed and even frightened by the role that destiny had handed him.

We shared his frustration with the seemingly callous attitude of those who were building and shaping the world in which we all had to live. We wanted him to win, although none of us seemed to be able to define what 'winning' meant.

The soundtrack, which features anti-war/folk artist icon Joan Baez on several cuts, indelibly stamps the movie with that classic 'seventies' feel; indeed, the underlying environmental themes explored in the film sprung from issues that were finally gaining momentum and public support during that heady decade. In some ways the movie represents a coming of age for the environmental movement-- and perhaps it also reflects the cynicism of that time as well, a seemingly tumultuous and never-ending decade that witnessed so many changes in both our own country and the world (but then again, what decade doesn't?) which at the time seemed almost … well, overwhelming.

Still, for those of us who lived them, the seventies were unique, and Silent Running is a great historical marker, not only of science fiction and film-making at that unique time but of politically sensitive social issues as well that were finally making their way to the forefront of the public consciousness as well.

Of course, I believe Silent Running is a must own DVD-- but you can rent it at your local video store-- I promise you won't be disappointed. Even after thirty-five years, the movie retains the ability to entertain and more.

Run silent, run free-- just run out and rent or buy (or check it out for free from your local library) this movie!

© 2011 Daniel C. Smith

Daniel C. Smith has published over a hundred stories, poems, articles and reviews in venues such as Bare Bone, Tales of the Talisman, The Leading Edge, Star*Line, and Space and Time.

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