Director: Douglas Trumbull. Starring: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint. Budget: 1$ million. USA, 1972. IMDb: 6.7. My rating: 2/4. Ecological space science fiction.
– On Earth, everywhere you go, the temperature is 75 degrees. Everything is the same; all the people are exactly the same. Now what kind of life is that?
Back in 1972 “Silent Running” was kind of a low-budget modest blockbuster made in the wake of “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The film was a directional debut for Douglas Trumbull, who worked most notably on special effects on the aforementioned Kubrick’s epic, “Blade Runner”, “Andromeda Strain”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and Malick’s “Tree of Life”. “Silent Running” was produced by Universal on a shoestring budget of one million dollars, one-tenth the budget of “2001”, which is very little for this kind of space sci-fi.
In Italy ”Silent Running” was released under this name… ”2002: la seconda odissea” ( = the second odyssey). That’s really
”Silent Running” suffers from many problems, like Bruce Dern with his cheesy lines and overacting, inaccurate scientific part and folk songs by Joan Baez that make look those scenes like an ecological New Age propaganda/hippie’s dilemma. It’s a naive flawed story with many drawbacks, yet somehow it still manages to transmit its kind emotion. The film was indeed influential, being an inspiration to ”Wall-E” and C-P30 and R-2D2. Duncan Jones, the director of the beloved ”Moon” also admitted that ”Silent Running” was one of the influences.
How does all that look now? Well… surprisingly all spaceships, technologies and special effects still look fine, even if obsolete. The real problem of the movie are the characters, their motivations and the scientific part. And the script, which obviously seemed to be covering just about 30 minutes of the time – the rest felt like a badly prepared improvisation.
Too many times during the viewing I had to ask myself: “Why would they do that?” (that is normally a very bad sign). But hey, it’s a naive 70-s’ sci-fi about a bunch of guys floating on a special spaceships that contain all kinds of flora and fauna because, ehm, Earth is full of glass and concrete and the temperature is the same everywhere. Add long haircuts and funny costumes. That is so 70-s.
The climax of the stupidity is somewhere in the 3/4 part of the movie, when all the plants carried on the spaceship are dying for no apparent reason. The main character – who is a top-notch scientist who has spent the last 10 years of his life with his beloved plants and as the movie shows that’s the only thing he cares about – tries everything to solve the problem but nothing works. And you know what?
He didn’t know that the plants need light to grow. Yep, you didn’t mishear. A top-level biologist didn’t know that plants grow with light.
All this stuff really prevents you from enjoying the movie because it’s not that kind of film that has enough action or mind-blowing special effects. The storyline doesn’t help – it’s divided in 3 parts, 2 of which feel like a time-filler and are completely unnecessary. Some scenes made me feel like they were there just to show ”look how we can shoot that”. The acting is pretty annoying, I didn’t like Bruce Dern’s performance here as it felt strained and laboured with some weird psychopathic hints and for the 80% of the movies you’ll observe only him and just a couple of droids.
The folk – FOLK – soundtrack by Joan Baez felt completely out of place, luckily there were only a couple of songs. But those scenes made me feel like I am watching an ecological New Age propaganda.
Some of this could be explained with the limited time for shooting and just 1 or 2 takes for each scenes, as cinemaincloseup notes: ”The film was made under extremely trying circumstances, as every cent had to be fully accounted for and a great number of scenes had to be shot each day, to meet the thirty two day shoot schedule. This stipulated that most shots had to be got in one or two takes, which in all honesty is blatantly obvious throughout the movie, as Dern overacts on occasion and fights appear staged.”
But even apart of that, Dern’s lines felt incredibly cheesy.
”Look at that little girl’s face. I know you’ve seen it. But you know what she’s never going to be able to see? She’s never going to be able to see the simple wonder of a leaf in her hand. Because there’s not going to be any trees.”
”You know when I was a kid, I put a note into a bottle and it had my name and address on it. And then I threw the bottle into the ocean. And I never knew if anybody ever found it.”
Anyway… with all this criticism, there are still many things to be enjoyed. Really. The droids were interesting and felt more alive than humans. In fact, the robots that you see in the movie were projected specially for three amputee actors.
The most beautiful part of the movie is the flight through the Saturn’s rings. Originally that part was intended to be developed for ”2001”, but Trumbull didn’t have enough time to finish it so another one was developed. He later came back to the original sequence and used it in ”Silent Running”.
Worth watching? ”Silent Running” is a showcase of why old sci-fi movies often look so horribly dated – the problem here is not with special effects or technology, but with its characters that feel unnatural, the script that seemed to be expanded on a Procrustean bed, the scientific inaccuracy and some typical elements of the 70-s culture.
Trumbull’s obviously inexperienced in directing and you can feel that. Ultra-low budget (for this kind of project) with just 1-2 takes for each scene don’t help, obviously. The central premise is naive, although still valid and relevant. With all its drawbacks, there’s still a lot to enjoy in ”Silent Running”. I wouldn’t consider it an all-time classic movie, but it surely may be a good insight into the early 70-s sci-fi.
2/4… for the lovely robots and the incredible flight through the Saturn’s rings