Douglas Trumbull, 1972, USA
If there was ever a hippy science-fiction, this is it. But although it’s feel is quintessentially Seventies, its ecological message feels more contemporary that ever in an age of Global Warming.
On a spaceship around Saturn, Lowell (Bruce Dern) and a team of ever-changing colleagues mind the cargo of samples of Earth’s terrain, now that Earth culture itself is apparently totally synthetic. Whilst Dern is thoroughly in love with these nature domes, his colleagues are less impressed, thoroughly immersed in the artificial world they have left behind. To them it’s a job; to him it’s a cause. The catalyst for this is when they are ordered to destroy the domes so that ship can be returned for more commercial use. Dern finds himself taking drastic action to preserve the last vestige of an Earth he doesn’t really care to return to.
Trumbull’s spaceship effects are exemplary, as you would expect from he who worked on ‘2001: a space odyssey’, and worth the price of admission alone. The model work is The shot of the spaceship against the rings of Saturn is gorgeous. This is the kind of sci-fi that looks lived in, where the hardware is dirty and scuffed and all the more working class for it. The film starts with pretty pictures of plants and wildlife before revealing its all on a spaceship. Characterisation is straightforward: we know his colleagues are wrong’uns and probably doomed by the way they recklessly speed their buggies around inconsiderately. Dern kills his colleagues – more from the desperation of the moment than premeditated – and thinks he can survive alone on the space station with Huey. Dewy and Louie the maintenance robots. But humans are predominantly social and nature turns out to just simply not be enough. Then, if there’s any doubt of the film’s hippy-leanings, Joan Baez sings about children running free.
But it's mostly Dern's one-man show, and he does a fine job of articulating the regret beneath the fortitude. Mostly, it’s Dern’s relationship with the pet-like robots which he and we anthropomorphise that give the emotional charge. "Amazing companions on an incredible adventure" the poster blurb says. They are diminutive and just this side of cutesy, falling just short of R2D2 twittering – although at one point one nudges the other when the human is approaching. Even so, he can’t quite make them human enough; after all, they don’t talk. As a kid, I used to cry at the eventual perpetual oblivious solitude of the robot at the end. Its sentiment is on its sleeve and powered by emotion and human failing rather than swamping man with metaphysics and his smallness in the scheme of things; indeed, Trumbull apparently made this as reaction to Kubrick’s ‘2001’. It’s probably this sentiment that leads Mark Kermode to say it’s superior to ‘2001’, as that is more his taste. It certainly means this is a less questioning work when the answers are so clearly evident: nature good; business bad; robots cute; boorishness bad; anthropomorphising good; etc. But it is more morally complex than that – as John Kenneth Muir details - as Lowell cannot reconcile his actions with his morality and humanity.
“Silent Running asks viewers to countenance a man who wants to save the last forest of Earth, and does, but pays too a high a personal and moral price to achieve that noble end.”
(But more than that, I wonder how it takes Lowell, as an ecologist, so long to realise that sunlight might be important to the growth of the forest. After all, the ultraviolet lights are right there.)
Nevertheless, that its agenda is so emotionally transparent and achieves its effect with a little anthropomorphising blunts its edge and – as a retort to ‘2001’ – leaves mankind foolhardy, desperate and emotionally fallible. In that sense, it's more of the Ray Bradbury strain of sci-fi. As a comparison, ‘2001’ is the more optimistic vision – one of transcendence – and ‘Silent Running’ as a riposte is left wanting by reducing humanity to self-destruction. Nevertheless, as a science-fiction vision and cautionary tale about man’s casual indifference to nature, it’s vivid and highly enjoyable and earns its place as a Seventies genre classic.