Title: Silent Running (1971)
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Stars: Bruce Dern
The lonely guy in a spaceship premise is one that has been used many times in the movie world. Basically, all you have to do is find an excuse to leave a guy alone in a spaceship in the vastness of space; you see how he deals with disconnecting from society, and you got yourself a movie. This premise was recently used in Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009). The trick in this kind of film is to keep things interesting even though the whole movie rests on the shoulders of one solitary character, one actor. In the wrong hands the results can be extremely boring, in the right hands, this kind of premise can go all sorts of interesting places.
Silent Running is about a space crew that flies around in these gargantuan spaceships that have these gigantic dome structures attached to them with forests and animals in them. These spaceships exist as a way of preserving Earth’s flora and fauna. You know, just in case we humans screw it up so bad down here on earth that we eradicate our forests. Problem comes when the company decides to recall the ships so they can be used commercially. They tell the crew that they have to explode the domes with nuclear explosions and then bring the ships back to earth. This upsets the main character of the film, Freeman Lowell. You see, Freeman is an environmentalist. He has been working on the maintenance of these forest domes for years and now he doesn’t want to participate or allow their destruction. So he takes matters into his own hands and steals the ship!
Douglas Trumbull, this films director worked on the special effects of a little film called 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). While working on 2001, Trumbull had the idea for this movie in his head. When the folks over at Universal Studios decided to give five new filmmakers one million dollars each to make their own films, Trumbull’s project was given the green light as one of those lucky five. Problem for me is that special effects guys don’t necessarily make for good storytellers or directors. I’ve seen this sort of thing happen a couple of times. Studios think that just because a guy was involved in f/x work on some other film, that this immediately makes them capable of directing a film. Examples of how disastrous this can be are the following films: Spawn (1997) where the director Mark A.Z. Dipee had previously worked on a couple of fx heavy films (like Jurassic Park and The Abyss) so New Line decided to give him a film to direct. We all know how Spawn turned out. Another example of this was the film Virus (1999) directed by special effects guy John Bruno. I believe Virus was one of the few instances when I actually didn’t give a shit about taking a bathroom break in the middle of a movie. Theres more examples, but these two are the most classic ones for me. Okay, heres a more recent one: Eragorn (2006). See what I mean? Strange thing is that Silent Running was made three years after 2001: A Space Odyssey, yet the special effects work is not better! The spaceships are obviously miniatures, which is something that never happened to me while watching Kubrick's film.
In my opinion, this is why Silent Running never really took off. They had everything they needed to make a good film. They had a great location. This movie was filmed inside of an Aircraft Carrier that was about to be decommissioned. It was the perfect place to build the sets for the interior of the ship. They had whiz kid model makers doing all the miniature models of the spaceships. They had John Dykstra working on the films visual effects. They had creative liberty from Universal Studios who wanted to let these five young directors do their thing. The success of Easy Rider which was an independent film produced by two new young filmmakers (Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) actually made them take this initiative of giving new directors a chance at creating a film without the interruption of the studio executives breathing down your neck. So this film had many things in its favor. What it didn’t have was a true blue director, a guy who knows how to tell a story in a way so that the audience will understand it. Douglas Trumbull was learning how to make a movie with this one. And you know what they say, some guys got it and some just don’t.
What else went wrong with this picture? Well, they had a decent premise for their film. That of a guy going up in space in order to preserve nature. I mean, it’s a noble gesture no doubt. The problem is that after the main character steals the ship and he drifts off into space, the movie turns completely boring. From there on in, the film is all about Freeman jogging around the ship, doing maintenance on the ship, playing poker with two robots, doing all sorts of mundane tasks. Basically, there is not a lot of conflict on the film. It’s not even about the company coming to get him for trying to steal the ship.Its not about Freeman encountering an alien species. Its not about anything! It’s just Freeman, up in space, living the life of a hippy; walking around in these robes that make him look like some religious freak or something. I mean, it just wasn’t that exciting. Not even in its last frames. Douglas Trumbull actually had a way better film planned before he started shooting. And from the sounds of it, it was going to be a heck of a lot more exciting then this one. Apparently for budgetary reasons, he went in a very different direction. The film he had planned was so much cooler, it sounds faster paced, more interesting, more complex than how it eventually turned out.
Bruce Dern (the crazy war veteran from Joe Dante’s The Burbs) is the actor who plays Freeman Lowell. He plays a guy who loves nature so much that he is willing to kill for it. And here’s where the movie kind of goes against its own message. On the one hand, the film wants to say “lets save nature! Nature is our friend!” but on the other hand the film has its main character killing another crew member so he can save his precious forest. I thought that made a villain out of the main character. It kind of turns him into a mad man. I’m all for nature, but I’m not going to kill someone to save a tree. Other things don’t make sense in this movie, for example, why do they have to blow up the domes with nuclear bombs? Couldn’t they just take those domes and set them somewhere on earth, in this way helping the environment? But I guess greedy companies don’t think that way. They think about the big bucks first.
Silent Running is a one note film. It has an interesting premise but not a very compelling or exciting execution. The film asks you to sympathize with a crazy hippy willing to kill people to save nature, which is a really hard thing to do. Not convinced this movie is super hippified? Just wait till you hear the hippy tunes that this film uses for its soundtrack! Its not that I don’t like 70s rock and roll, but the songs they chose for this movie simply do not match with the visuals. I mean, Trumbull was emulating Kubrick, but Kubrick took extra care in using the perfect music for the perfect scenes. On Silent Running the songs do not go with the visuals…at all. I mean the movie had its heart in the right place, but it wasn’t well executed. Probably because of Trumbull’s inexperience as a director.
The DVD for this film is jam packed full of extras, even when the film itself isnt all that great. It has a 47 minute making of feature which I actually found more interesting then the film itself! It really takes you into what it takes to make a movie. I loved the interviews with the director and actor of the film, where they kind of look back at what they did all those years ago. Just the fact that I enjoyed the behind the scenes more then the film itself should let you know what you are in for if you watch this one. If you’re interested in seeing every science fiction film ever made during the 70s, give this one a look, everyone else should steer away from this one.
Rating: 1 1/2 out of 5
The spanish release poster translates to "Mysterious Spaceships"