Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Silent Running (1972) - out in space, a plea for beauty

I don't remember if I saw this film when it was originally released, or years later, but I remember really enjoying it the first time I saw it. It is an outstanding directorial debut for Douglas Trumbull, who worked on both 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Andromeda Strain as a special effects wizard.  The story itself doesn't make a lot of sense from a practical standpoint. In the future there are these enclosed domes out in space (near Saturn). They're actually giant greenhouses holding the last of earth's flora. Earth is apparently just hunky dory, with no unemployment, and a temperate 75 degrees everywhere. But there's no more forests, so they sent the last plant life into space. On the surface it's an eco science-fiction story from the early 1970's, when there was much worry about pollution and its devastating effect on our planet.

Below the surface it's much more interesting. Bruce Dern plays Freeman Lowell, one of the astronauts charged with the safekeeping of the domes. Far more than the other three crew members on board, Lowell takes the forests to heart and believes the mission to be of the utmost import. He even makes some passionate speeches about beauty and nonconformity, to the deaf ears of his crew mates. When word comes down that the domes are to be nuked and the crew is to return (for "commercial" reasons), Lowell doesn't take it too well. The story gets going as Lowell starts to unravel and makes some unfortunate decisions. Ultimately he is left alone with the forest and a few robots (referred to as drones). Dern's performance is excellent of course, and the drones almost steal the show.  Huey and Dewey (as Lowell has named them) become his new crew mates and he is able to relate much better to them than he was to the human crew. Loneliness and regret starts to eat at Lowell however and Dern does a great job of being a little crazy and still sympathetic.

It can get boring out in space, alone, with regret, and some robots.
The special effects are excellent all around, with great models, exceeding most anything else from that era. The interiors were shot aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier "Valley Forge", the same name given to the spaceship, with lots of cool lights and buttons. The drones were manned by multiple-amputee actors and to me are the most outstanding aspect of this film. The soundtrack is also very good, composed by Peter Schickele (of P.D.Q. Bach fame), there's a song sung by Joan Baez, which does seem a bit corny, but I like Joan so that's fine by me.

Interior shot of the "Valley Forge"

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