Fifty years ago this month, Silent Running was released in theaters. Right away, the sci-fi eco-drama stood out back in the 1970s thanks to its innovative special effects, set design and the ecologically driven storyline that struck chords with environmentalists everywhere.
Silent Running takes entirely onboard a spaceship near Saturn called the Valley Forge that serves as an environmental ark for the last remaining Earth ecosystems encased in giant geodesic domes that act as greenhouses.
Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is a botanist and one of the four crewmen who care for the ecosystems, along with a trio of robotic drones called Huey, Louie and Dewey. The crew receives orders to destroy the domes and return to Earth, but Freeman is mortified by the orders even though the others are eager to go back home. During the operations of jettisioning and blowing up the domes, Freeman mutinies, kills his crewmates and hijacks the Valley Forge. With one dome remaining on the ship, Freeman heads out to deep space to continue caring for the last ecosystem with help from the drones. During his voyage, Freeman has to deal with loneliness, guilt and the logistics of caring for the fragile plants and small animals in the dome.
Elevated by Bruce Dern’s passionate and sensitive performance, and superior special effects, Silent Running is a contemplative and quietly emotional film. Despite its short run time and the over-the-top environmental message, the film is quite effective and leaves you thinking about it long after it is over. The late special effects guru Douglas Trumbull made his directorial debut with this film, though the only other film he directed was Brainstorm, which is a shame as he showed a lot of promise as a director. The effects truly stood out from practical effects, such as the drones which were performed by bilateral amputees, to excellent and intricate model work. The footage of the Valley Forge would pop up in other films and TV shows such as the orginal Battlestar Galactica.
Kudos has to go to Bruce Dern who largely spends the film by himself. He was able to project a kinship with the drones who despite not able to speak demonstrated emotions like bravery and loyalty. Of course, he is guilty of murdering his colleagues and his environmental rantings come off as too extreme, yet his passion for the last remaining plant and wildlife is sincere and relatable.
One nagging fault about the film has to do with unanswered questions about the domes and the film’s simplistic script. What exactly happened to the Earth and why was the Valley Forge crew told to destroy the domes and return home? What we know about the importance of plants in our complex enviroment with creating oxygen and food would mean that these domes would not be casually discarded. Did the environmental situation improve on Earth to make the domes unneccesary? In one exchange between Freeman Lowell and his crewmates, it is pointed out that humanity can now duplicate the benefits of plants. Does this mean air and food can now be easily created without vegetation? Based on the level of technology shown in the film, this does not seem likely. Even if this was true, why discard such precious resources so casually? It’s hard to imagine that all of humanity except for Freeman would be fine with this. If a remake is ever made for this film, these issues can be addressed or its premise should be updated given what we now understand about ecosystems.
There is also an unavoidable fault with Freeman’s thinking that honestly makes him out to be a complete fool. At some point, the plants are withering and the botanist spends significant time trying to figure out why, while the cause and solution are quite obvious.
Still, in spite of these lapses in logic, Silent Running truly was one of the best sci-fi films released in the 1970s and should be seen at least once by sci-fi fans. The film is a true gem with resonating message and images. The best example is Silent Running’s very last scene, which is very emotional and serves as a fitting allegory for our own fragile and special planet in the vast cosmos.