Nearly half a century ago, special effects pioneer Doug Trumbull (“2001: A Space Odyssey” “Blade Runner” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) took the director’s chair (at the tender age of 28) to make a low budget ecological sci-fi called “Silent Running.” The movie came from a script by writers Derek Washburn, Michael Cimino (both of “The Deer Hunter”) and Steve Bochco (“Hill Street Blues” “L.A. Law”).
The lead astronaut/botanist protagonist “Freeman Lowell” was played by semi-legendary character actor Bruce Dern, whose thin build, long hair and wild eyes usually cast him as heavies or eccentrics. In “Silent Running”, Dern arguably gives the performance of his career.
**** GIANT ECO-DOME SIZED SPOILERS! ****
In “Silent Running”, Dern’s Lowell is a flawed hero… an ecological savior who is forced to murder his colleagues in order to try to save the very last of the Earth’s dwindling forests, which are now drifting in large pods aboard massive space freighters near the orbit of Saturn, in an unspecified but relatable future. Lowell’s ship, the Valley Forge, is one of many containing the very last of Earth’s forests and other ecospheres within their attached domes.
Lowell’s doomed shipmates, Keenan, Barker and Wolf (Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin and Jesse Vint) are intent on nuclear-detonating the large eco-domes aboard their freighters. The madness of their mission comes directly via their chain-of-command, in order for the large spacecraft to “return to commercial service” (such ecological shortsightedness in favor of short-term profit feels all-too familiar today). The Valley Forge’s sister ships are also doing the same…freeing themselves from the ‘burden’ of caring for the last of Earth’s vegetation.
After the deaths of Keenan, Barker and Wolf, Lowell’s only companions are several two-legged robotic drones, Huey, Dewey and Louie (Louie is lost earlier in the film). The drones in the film were played by real-life double amputees aging in range from 17-20 years old (Mark Persons, Steven Brown, Cheryl Sparks and Larry Whisenhunt).
The drones’ functional design, electronic vocalizations and movements would not look at all out of place in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” (1977). “Silent Running” was released five years earlier.
Over the course of the film, the increasingly lonely Lowell begins to anthropomorphize his automated companions, as he reprograms them to perform surgery on his injured leg, play poker, and ultimately care for the single remaining forest pod that he has sacrificed his shipmates to protect. Realizing the vegetation in the forest pod is dying, he rigs up a series of lights within the dome to simulate sunlight in the darkness of deep space. It works.
After passing through Saturn’s rings in a desperate bid to shake off any would-be ‘rescuers’, the Valley Forge emerges from the far side of the planet and is tracked on long-range sensors. Earth is sending a rescue mission. Lowell realizes if his rescuers catch up to the Valley Forge, his last remaining forest pod will be destroyed, just like all of the others. Programming Dewey with all of his botanical knowledge, Lowell puts the drone in charge of the forest pod’s maintenance; and then detaches it safely away from the ship. With the pod escaping out into the void, like a message in a bottle floating into an open sea, Lowell then nuclear destructs the Valley Forge before the rescuers can board it.
The final shot of the film sees the final forest dome of Earth floating away into an uncertain fate…
Douglas Trumbull’s direction, and special effects supervision, does an awful lot with a relatively meager $1 million budget. Future Star Wars effects legend John Dykstra even gave an assist with the photographic effects work. While there are some minor issues (most notably a lack of coverage during the human scenes, making the editing feel somewhat static), Trumbull’s overall direction for the 89 minute “Silent Running” is inventive, resourceful and inspired.
Most of the Valley Forge spacecraft interiors were filmed aboard the real-life decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge (CV-45) which was berthed in Long Beach, California at the time. With little redressing, the vast cargo bays, main bridge and claustrophobic corridors of the ship make convincing stand-ins for the interiors of a futuristic space freighter. The USS Valley Forge was launched near the very end of World War 2, and served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. The ship was ultimately consigned for scrap in October of 1971 (seven months after filming aboard the ship had completed).
The interiors of the spacious wilderness preserving domes were shot within a large aircraft hangar in Van Nuys, California (the future birth place of Industrial Light and Magic). The vegetation and trees inside the pods were rented from a local nursery, and a Sears-bought children’s pool (cleverly concealed by foliage) made for a convincing mini-lake.
Space backdrops outside of the translucent domes were rendered with front projected imagery, the same process used to project African wilderness scenery onto British film sets in Trumbull’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (the “Dawn of Man” sequences). Scenes of the renegade Valley Forge spacecraft ‘shooting the rapids’ within the rings of Saturn were originally planned for “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) but were not ready in time.
Miniatures of the Valley Forge spacecraft were 25 ft. long and photographed before front projection screens to place them seemingly into the void of Saturnian space. The effects footage of the Valley Forge and its sister ships (multiplied images of the single Valley Forge miniature) was later reused in both “Battlestar Galactica” (1978) as the rag-tag fleet’s ‘agro ships’, as well as an episode of “The Night Gallery” (1971’s “The Different Ones”) which aired three months before “Silent Running” was released theatrically in March of 1972.
The film’s songs (“Silent Running” “Rejoice in the Sun” ) by popular 1970s folk singer Joan Baez seem somewhat calculated to make a pop soundtrack tie-in, yet they work… largely because they add a much-needed feminine presence to what is otherwise an exclusively male cast. “Rejoice in the Sun,” in particular, feels like a vocalization of Mother Nature herself. Some viewers may find Baez’s songs hokey and dated, but they are also an intractable part of the film’s DNA; they fit well with the music of composer Peter Shickele (“Fantasia 2000”).
Hero or Antihero?
The flawed Freeman Lowell bears many things in common with other stranded or isolated astronauts in cinema, such as Commander Kit Draper (the late Paul Mantee) in “Robinson Crusoe On Mars” (1964), Commander David Bowman (Keir Dullea) in the aforementioned “2001,” and lunar miner Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) in “Moon” (2009).
Lowell arguably shares the most in common with Mars-stranded botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in 2015’s “The Martian.” Both men are botanists, and prefer living on the food they grow through their own resourcefulness (Mark’s infamous poop-tatoes), and both men share a bit of grim humor regarding their enforced solitudes. Mark, however, is an unabashed optimist while Lowell is far more fatalistic. Mark Watney has thousands of people on Earth all brainstorming on ways to rescue him. Lowell doesn’t want a rescue (hence his ‘silent running’), because he knows his rescuers would only want to destroy the forest dome he’s sacrificed so much to protect… he also carries the tremendous guilt of being forced to murder his shipmates.
The 1970s were also the age of the antihero, with films such as “The Godfather” (1972), “Chinatown” (1974) and “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) having protagonists were operated in somewhat gray moral waters. Freeman Lowell has a very noble and selfless goal (the protection of Earth’s waning vegetation and wildlife) but he uses murder to achieve his ends. Lowell doesn’t waver; he jettisons Barker and Wolf in one of the agro pods that are destroyed (murdering both at once), and later murders Keenan in gruesome hand-to-hand combat.
We see that Lowell feels great pain and remorse over the deaths he’s caused, even using the drones to dig a grave for murdered crewman John Keenan (Cliff Potts), the only member of the Valley Forge’s four man complement who showed Lowell any measure of sympathy or compassion. But at the end of the day, he makes his choice…the last of Earth’s forests over the lives of his crew mates.
Some might find Lowell’s act of murdering one’s own crew irredeemable in a modern movie, but that’s also one of the things that separates “Silent Running” from an ordinary space flick; Lowell does what his conscience dictates, as easily as his colleagues tried to nuclear-destruct the forest pods mindlessly on orders from Earth. Both are acts of murder; one of fellow human beings, and another a mass murder of multiple species on the verge of extinction. “Silent Running” doesn’t pronounce judgment upon its lead character… it leaves that to the viewer.
As of this writing the Amazon rainforest is burning out of control…threatening roughly a fifth of the world’s oxygen, as well as irreplaceable biodiversity. The Brazilian president has told international parties to “mind their own business” in the matter.
The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency, under the current Trump administration, is virtually eliminating long-held protections on multiple endangered species by factoring economic impacts into their overall salvation ‘worth.’ In other words, if a species survival has too great an economic impact on short-term profits, then it’s no longer going to be worth saving.
As more and more restrictions for safeguarding the natural environmental are being phased out (or otherwise subverted), the barren future imagined in “Silent Running” 47 years ago isn’t so difficult to imagine these days, nor is the film’s seemingly suicidal decision to nuclear-destruct the last of Earth’s forestation in favor of commercial interests. Given current world leadership, this possible future may come far sooner than depicted in “Silent Running.”
While Trumbull’s innovative ecological sci-fi film may seem superficially dated in some respects, its message is perhaps even more potent (and timely) now than it was in the early 1970s.