Silent Running

Certificate: U
Running time: 89 mins
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Starring: Bruce Dern, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint
Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama
Country: USA

In the future when Industry and Consumerism has engulfed all of the world’s nature and beauty one man stands alone in an attempt to bring the earth back from the brink but when he’s given orders to destroy the last of the planet’s forests (being nurtured in artificial domes in space) it’s an order too far for the eco-warrior.

Silent Running has some real heavy hitting pedigree behind it in writing team Deric Washburn and Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter) which might go some way to explain why it’s survived the four decades being it’s release and now.  It’s influence both visually and narratively is incredibility striking as apart from the millions of people who are willing to pay their hard earned money to be disappointed by George Lucas has two films to thank for his riches and success, the first being Flash Gordon and the second is undeniably Silent Running.  Visually the film has remained unbelievably powerful to watch, yes there are some moments in which you can almost see the working out of the visual effects but the fact that so many of them are done on set, in camera and for real is a testament to director Trumbell, the visual effects team and cinematographer Charles F. Wheeler, who for my money did a job that comes amazingly close to the calibre of Geoffrey Unsworth and his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The narrative of Silent Running is often misunderstood as one of light hearted tree hugging but it’s a lot darker and sinister than any of that “old hippie stuff”.  At the film’s lowest is the story of madness and the importance of human contact; the importance of reaching out no matter how disagreeable the interaction is and at the highest is one of hope; blind, pure hope.  There are fewer films that are as visually beautiful yet at the same time narratively menacing as this and it’s a genuine shock to the system that the majority of Douglas Trumbull’s filmography (as a director) is made up of shorts or paycheck work like steering the vision of Back to the Future…The Ride.  Here’s a man that can carefully craft a film of deep emotional complexity that is contradictory to the senses yet he isn’t grabbed with both hands and championed all across the cinema city of the west coast…shock and awe aplenty.

When it comes to performances Silent Running is a one man show.  It doesn’t help that Ron Rifkin (who is always incredibility watchable) is incredibly watchable on screen for all the wrong reasons.  Inexperience shouldn’t really come into it, by the time he got the role of Marty Barker he was a jobbing actor for six years yet there was moments when your attention is drawn to him because of how unbelievably awkward and aware he appears on screen.  These are moments that will be echoed in years to come in another Sci-Fi narrative with a small cast as Jeremy Davies proved troublesome in Solaris.  Cliff Potts and Jesse Vint are relatively non occurring entities when you place them alongside Bruce Dern (as Freeman Lowell) who without question dishes up the powerhouse performance of a career that exercises all possible acting muscles without being overly showy or coming across as trying.  Dern is a quality actor who always gives more than he is given.  All too often to be seen as part of the supporting cast Silent Running allows Dern to showcase exactly what he can bring to the table and make no mistake about it he is the driving force on screen, a screen which he spends most of his time either alone or interacting with drones.  The fact that you never doubt Huey, Dewey or Louie as characters in this eco-Shakespearian tragedy in space is all thanks to him and though I have my reservations about the film in general I can not wait to see what Dern’s given to play with in Django Unchained.

There are a handful of minor issues with the film, largely due to the animatronics and the fact that the film has just turned forty (and therefore showing a little age) but I’d take age and weathering over the constant tweaking and nostalgia buggery of Lucas Films and their maniacal quest to sanitise all things classic without the original three Star Wars films.  There are two types of space exploration films, the first reaches out and quests it’s way across the Galaxy blowing things up and causing endless amongst of mess that some green janitor is going to have to clean up the second is an internal exploration and a quest to get to the bottom of the human condition and like Solaris (1972 and 2002) and 2001 it is this exploration that is always the more interesting, dangerous and rewarding.  Silent Running might not have the acclaim; following or razzmatazz of a Star Wars or Star Trek, but what it does have is weight.  It’s the silent partner of a success business, the quiet head of a powerful family and four decades on it’s still as moving and mesmerizing having lost none of it’s impact.


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