SILENT RUNNING / Limited Edition Blu-Ray Review

There's a moment in Silent Running, Douglas Trumbull's directorial debut of 1972, when the main character Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), now alone on the space freighter Valley Forge, contemplates his situation and idly glances at his Smokey the Bear Conservation Pledge. And that's not a euphemism. The Pledge, a poster from a 1954 campaign, is pinned up on the wall of his room. It features Smokey, the mascot of the US Forest Service, who became a children's favourite through campaigns, cartoons, books and toys and asked successive generations to look after the forests and animals.

That moment is symbolic of Lowell's desire to return to a simpler, more innocent life, one where mankind and nature live in harmony. One where mankind hasn't devastated the Earth and shot the remains of the planet's fragile ecosystem into deep space. Daft as it may sound, but Lovell wants to be a child running through the forests of Earth again, protecting the environment as all good little boys and girls were asked to do by Smokey. During his darkest moments of self-doubt, he even imagines himself back on a restored Earth.
Viewing Silent Running today it projects a strong, if simplistic, message mixed with a nostalgia for the period in which it was made and yet postulates a problematic hero in Freeman Lowell, a caring botanist who murders the rest of his crew when the order is received to destroy the remains of Earth's flora and fauna held in domes aboard the Valley Forge. This murderous revenge on the conservative views of his fellow crew members is carried out by a figure often dressed in quasi-religious robes as Joan Baez's distinctive vocals warble away on the soundtrack. Baez was by the end of the 1960s one of the first musicians to incorporate social protest within her ouvre and the two songs featured here are clearly of their time and may not be to most viewers' tastes. Couple this with the child-like innocence of the three drones who end up being Lowell's defacto companions and you have a film that is often achingly sentimental, sometimes illogical and yet poses questions about the 'hippie' ethics of the period, our perceptions of environmental crisis then and now and man's relationship to both machine and nature.

Naive, innocent, simple Silent Running may seem. Sentimental, definitely. However, some of that sentimentality and charm comes from its director, Trumbull, whose first shot at directing this was. He describes Silent Running as his student film and in many ways it feels like his equivalent of both John Carpenter's own college project Dark Star (1974) - minus the satire - or Lucas's THX 1138 (1971) - minus the pretension.

It was also his response to the adult and somewhat glacial tone poem of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) on which he had worked as an effects supervisor alongside his colleague from Graphic Films, Con Pederson and British effects veterans Wally Veevers and Tom Howard. Silent Running was a project that evolved as he was working on Kubrick's film and it was never his intention to direct it.

The opportunity to get the film made came about as a result of American cinema's New Wave and its impact on the old, and rapidly fading, Hollywood studio system. Like many of the major studios, Universal were impressed with the success of Easy Rider (1969) and, encouraged by the prospect of increasing profit margins, they offered young directors an opportunity to make low-budget films each at a $1 million price tag. They created a five picture deal to include The Last Movie (1971) from Dennis Hopper, George Lucas's American Graffiti (1973), Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand (1971), Milos Forman's Taking Off (1971) and Trumbull's Silent Running.

Trumbull's original script was rewritten by Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn (later both co-writing The Deerhunter), Steven Bochco (writer/producer of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue) and the film went into production in February 1971 with further revisions to the script by Trumbull. A rapid 32 day shoot took place on location using the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, standing in for the space freighter, and in an aircraft hangar in Van Nuys which represented one of the bio-domes.

Despite Trumbull's inexperience as director, the film is driven forward by a number of elements. There's a rather good central performance from Bruce Dern as botanist Lowell that traces the man's questionable role as 'eco-warrior' and his descent into loneliness and madness; several superb effects sequences including the detailed models of the ship and the bio-domes accompanied so triumphantly in the opening titles by Peter Schickele's score; and the 'lived in' look that production designer Wayne Smith brings to the interiors of the space freighter Valley Forge indicating that Silent Running was probably one of the first films to reject the clinical environs of Kubrick's clean looking future and anticipate the science fiction grunge of Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979) several years later.
'... a memory of an environment and an ecology that no longer exists'
Silent Running also emerged at a time when the interest in environmental concerns was gathering momentum and it, along with several other dystopian science fiction films of the period such as Soylent Green (1973) and Logan's Run (1976) could be seen, as Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann suggest in Ecology and Popular Film, as a response to the establishment of the annual eco-awareness Earth Day and Nixon's formation of the Environmentmal Protection Agency in 1970.

The films "embrace a memory of an environment and an ecology that no longer exists on their Earth - an eco memory. At the same time, though, these films reflect a nostalgia for a world that still does exist for its viewers, both in the 1970s and today." It's perfectly captured in one of Lowell's moments of eco-polemic: "It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth... and there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in - you could go to sleep in. And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air... and there were things growing all over the place, not just in some domed enclosures blasted some millions of miles out in to space."

As mentioned above, Trumbull's film was one of a clutch of science fiction films that, according to Lincolm Geraghty in American Science Fiction Film and Television, indicated "the prophetic impulse of 2001 and Star Trek was a false dawn, as their glittering visions of interstellar space travel, alien life and super technology appeared tarnished by America's economic recession, impending defeat in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal and increasing social division and unrest." A reaction to the independent creative spirit of the New Wave in cinema from Lew Wasserman at Universal, itself a conglomerate owned by MCA, Silent Running challenges some assumptions about the impact of the counter-culture on mainstream society.

It depicts Lowell as a saintly Francis of Assisi figure gathering all of nature about him but who then murders his colleagues, descending into guilt ridden isolation. He then turns to the technologies he rejected, as symbolised by the three robot drones, to replace their lost human companionship which he now desperately craves. That he understands that machines are required to sustain nature, to ensure the last bio-dome survives, signals the way that the hippies of the 1970s, depicted as individualistic and radical, eventually became the baby boomer 'me generation' who took up careers in businesses that fueled the economic boom and bust of the 1980s.

In the end, Lowell understands that he is unable to return to the Earth not just because the government have given up all hope of recovering the Earth's biosphere (due to cost cutting) but also because he has blood on his hands too. He's as guilty of destruction as they are. As Murray and Heumann suggest, the film proposes that "technology is necessary to save 'nature'" and the only way Lowell can do that is to programme one of the drones to act as caretaker to the last remaining bio-dome and send it out into the ocean of space. Underlining this admission, there is a constant juxtaposition throughout the film of the natural world of the bio-domes, filled with flowers, trees, rabbits, birds and turtles to the corporatised technological images of the spaceship's interiors and exteriors plastered with American Airlines, Coca-Cola, Dow (ironically the chemical company that produced and manufactured the napalm and Agent Orange defoliant dropped on Vietnam) and Polaroid logos.
"And then I threw the bottle into the ocean. And I never knew if anybody ever found it." 
His relationship to the drones is another instance of returning to childhood where, echoing Trumbull's own affection for Donald Duck cartoons, he names and anthropomorphises the three drones as Huey, Louie and Dewey. Vivian Sobchak, in Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader perfectly summarises the transformation that the three unprepossessing robots undergo as Lowell interacts with them more and more, especially after he has to programme one of them to perform surgery on him or later teaches them to play poker with him. 

Trumbull's evolving view of them "becomes progressively sympathetic and subjective, suggesting the merest hint of an animate life of some kind tucked away in their circuitry." After the deaths of the other three crewmen, he begins to intercut Lowell's subjective view of events with that of the drones, suggesting a gradual sharing with the viewer of intertwined human and machine observations. This is partly achieved through Lowell's skewed point of view shots and what the drones see replayed through monitor screens.

Despite the illogical nature of some of the film's ideas, including the failure of Lowell (whom we assume is a qualified botanist) to understand that photosynthesis in plants needs sunlight after the trees mysteriously start to die, and some likely ambivalence to Baez's rather earnest songs on the soundtrack (in themselves a call to a purer, greener age), the film's final scenes would surely melt anyone's heart. As his superiors close in on the Valley Forge, after he has used 'silent running' stealth tactics to evade them, and Lowell comes face to face with his own pathology, he sends Dewey off into space to manage the flora and fauna with a battered old watering can, the can's dented surface covered in images of children playing in green fields and forests. This tainted 'eco-warrior' then blows himself and the ship up after uttering one final recall to childhood: "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."

The same can be said of the film itself. After opening to critical praise, the film suffered at the hands of Universal's marketing department who thought word of mouth would put bums on seats instead of putting their hands in their pockets for some marketing spend. It disappeared from view until television showings generated a new found appreciation. Alas, Universal showed the property little respect and had the further temerity to plunder its effects sequences for episodes of their Battlestar Galactica television series in 1978. Ironically, the origin of Star Wars' R2-D2, inspired by the drones Huey, Dewey, and Louie from the film, was one of thirty-four similarities between the two films cited in the copyright infringement legal dispute after 20th Century Fox and Universal counter-sued each other over Battlestar Galactica.

The film is held together by Dern's rather powerful performance as an 'eco-warrior'. You might find it hard to entirely sympathise with Lowell because of his violent resolution to the threat posed by his fellow man, on the ship and on Earth, both of whom reject the continuation of the natural world. Dern is supported by charming performances from Mark Persons, Steven Brown, Cheryl Sparks and Larry Whisenhunt as the drones, Trumbull's glorious visual effects and Peter Schickele's score that embraces both the brittleness of Baez's acoustic folk-protest and the more pessimistic tones of electronica.

However, it is Lowell who underpins the film's environmental convictions that the technological and natural worlds are in many ways compatible but they may not necessarily require an intervention from mankind in order to evolve. Lowell's ire at his colleagues is perhaps even more relevant some forty years later when nearly a dozen species have become extinct thanks to pollution, aggressive over hunting, habitat loss, poaching and agricultural development. Trumbull's message in the bottle has been found again with this timely Blu-Ray release.  

About the transfer
Masters of Cinema have provided the disc with a very clean, restored 1080p transfer. Colour is robust with the blues and reds of the uniforms looking particularly good. Flesh tones are natural and are in keeping with the softer tone of the picture and the presence of requisite film grain. It's a handsome transfer that has plenty of detail - in the sets, clothing and in the detailed model shots of the Valley Forge - and it handles well the juxtaposition of the textures of the natural world, as housed in the domes, with the design of the ship interiors. Even though it's forty years old there is a pleasant amount of detail in a very film-like image. The original mono soundtrack has been preserved in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 lossless format and it handles the dialogue, Schickele's terrific music score, the Baez songs and the sound effects with aplomb. There's even an isolated music and effects only track on offer too.

Special features
I first encountered this track back on the Canadian/US DVD release of the film and it was a pleasure to reacquaint myself with this conversation between director Douglas Trumbull and his lead actor Bruce Dern which was originally recorded back in October 2000. As well as telling us about how the film was greenlit, he provides a lot of technical information about the visual and practical effects in the film particularly. He also talks briefly about working with Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey and the odd relationship he had with him. Rather amusingly, he used to get calls from an irritated Kubrick whenever Trumbull was credited with sole responsibility for the effects on his film in the press and media. Trumbull adamantly claims here that Kubrick did not actually work on the effects for 2001 even though he takes credit for them on screen.

After admitting that he was nearly broke after working on the effects for Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain, he also chats about his career since Silent Running and the various films he had in development during the 1970s and 1980s and which all fell by the wayside when studio management changed or their investments were re-prioritised. Dern comes across as very laid back, rather in awe of what Trumbull achieved with the film considering the budget and tight schedule. He provides background on getting the part and working with the actors he knew from The Actors' School who played the other crew members as well as an appreciation of the film's central philosophy. Well worth a listen.   
The Making of Silent Running (50mins)
A vintage documentary from director Charles Barbee that goes into great detail about the production of the film as it was being made on board the decommissioned aircraft carrier Valley Forge. We see director Trumbull on set working with his actors, including Dern, as well as helping the four double-amputees who perform as the robot drones in suits made by Trumbull's dad, Don. His father also helped build the go-karts and we get to see the opening scene of the go-kart chase being shot. Plenty of interview footage with all the participants, including production designer Wayne Smith, and behind the scenes material about the model effects shooting and the recording of the Joan Baez songs.
Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull (31mins)
A Laurent Bouzereau produced interview from 2001 that focuses on Trumbull and covers quite a bit of the information from the commentary about the script development and subsequent making of the film but is nonetheless still a valuable addendum.
Douglas Trumbull: Then and Now (5mins).
Very brief piece that takes up the story post-Silent Running and his work in the effects industry. It also explores his attempts to turn back the tide of multiplexing that dogged the exhibition of films from the early 1980s onwards. With support from Paramount, Trumbull attempted to develop his 60fps format Showscan as a way of turning a visit to the cinema into an immersive event. It also explores the filming and designing of Back to Future - The Ride which combined all of Trumbull's ideas for immersive cinema.
A Conversation with Bruce Dern (11mins)
Dern discusses his involvement with the film, the film's central character and themes and working with Trumbull.
Booklet - Complete with essays from production designer Wayne Smith, cinematographer Charles Wheeler and composer Peter Schickele, this book is full of archive images from Trumbull's personal collection. 

Silent Running
Universal Pictures - Trumbull / Gruskoff Productions
Masters of Cinema Limited Edition / Eureka Entertainment / Released 14 November 2011 / 89 min / Cert: U
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC / 1080p / 1.85:1 / DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 / Subtitles: English SDH / Region B (locked)

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2 Responses to “SILENT RUNNING / Limited Edition Blu-Ray Review”
  1. What a stunning, comprehensive and insightful review. I was thinking about writing an article about this film on my own site, but now feel there is little point except to direct others to your wonderful piece instead.

  2. Thanks Chandler. Much appreciated. You should still write it because I bet there are other views about Silent Running that you could present. However, very grateful for any links to the review.

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