Science-fiction is a genre inherently grounded in ideas, and most of its output – no matter how outlandish in theme – has a foot in the door of reality. David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), for example, imagines a possible future where citizens play videogames organically, entering the fabric of the virtual world via body implants. Now, while I don’t believe in a future where RPG’s will be played through the human flesh, I don’t think anybody could deny how rapidly we’re working toward an age where players will be able to live inside the game, likely via some radical holographic technology. These future reality pictures are speculations on advanced logic, taking fact-based formulas and ideas and exaggerating them for the sake of fiction (the science-based world of eXistenZ gives way to conventions of horror). In this same mould, Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running imagines a near-future where the Earth as we know it no longer exists – the land has been leveled for, I presume, housing and industry. Children will never experience for themselves the beguiling mystery of a poppy field, whose beauty will be represented by picture books and postcards. Instead, fleets of advanced eco systems have been built in space, positioned around the rings of Saturn. Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) has been cultivating one of these systems for the past eight years, along with three other men named John (Cliff Potts), Marty (Ron Rofkin) and Andy (Jesse Vint). But these men seem not to care for the trees and plants which Lowell so carefully tends to. They seem overjoyed when management is forced to abandon the preservation project, and it’s announced that the greenhouses must be destroyed. Lowell decides to save the forests and in a moment of passion kills his three companions. Now he must tend to the trees alone, accompanied only by three drones; Huey, Duey and Louie (named after Donald Duck’s nephews).
I wonder how far into the future Silent Running is set, because the screenplay (authored by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino and Steven Bochco) avoids any specifics. The spacecraft’s design and technology looks largely contemporary, so the viewer is free to imagine the decade (or century) in which the film takes place, and I like to think of it as an alternative present-day. Pixar’s Wall•E (Stanton, 2008) imagined a dystopic future where the Earth has been reduced to a dusty consumerist wasteland, leaving behind little robots to clean up our mess. Although Pixar have openly acknowledged a debt to Silent Running, I prefer to think of Wall•E as a possible sequel, set in 2805 when Lowell is dead and the eco project (seemingly funded by American Airlines) has long been buried. In many ways Lowell is Earth’s final martyr, and Silent Running does subtly engage with religious ideas – when in the forrest he dresses in a loose grey robe, resembling that of a monk’s, and in his sanctuary (referred to as Eden) Lowell represents the highest power. And in the end he gives his life for an ultimate cause.
It’s important to remember, when considering the humanist elements of Silent Running, that Trumbull conceived the project as a direct response to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), for which he created the visionary ‘Stargate’ sequence. 2001, produced in conjunction with Arthur C. Clarke’s groundbreaking novel, looked to life as a singular collective entity, charting man’s evolution through millenias and star systems, working through a loose narrative which posed unanswerable questions to its audience. Kubrick’s cold, clinical style led to what Trumbull describes as a “dehumanized” work, and so the director set about focusing his film on the empathy and tolerance of one gentle man. The film is undeniably sentimental (largely thanks to those two Joan Baez songs), and its eco message a little heavy handed, but Trumbull is successful in forming a quiet and profoundly sad character drama, drawing a career best turn from the eternally underrated Bruce Dern. Lowell is in almost every frame of the film, and the camera develops an intimacy with him that proves especially effective in the final scenes. Kudos to Trumbull and Dern too for imbuing the drones with such humanity. Their ultimate fates never fail to make me teary eyed, and the film’s final shot is one of the most powerful in all of cinema…
Silent Running is out on blu-ray 14th November. Stunning transfer from Masters Of Cinema of whom we should expect nothing less. The opening credits, which observe the plantation and its life forms in microscopic detail, are captivating in their beauty. If their restoration forSilent Running looks this good, I really can’t wait to see what they’ve done with Touch Of Evil (Welles, 1958). As usual there’s an accompanying booklet, which was unavailable with my press screener, but the disc extras, including a commentary, making of doc, interviews and the original theatrical trailer, are all exemplary. An essential purchase.
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Stars: Bruce Dern, Cliff Pott, Ron Rifkin
Runtime: 89 min