Silent Running

12 Nov

Today, Douglas Trumbull may be best known as the man behind the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner and, more recently, The Tree of Life but he has been in the director’s chair for Brainstorm and, more notably, Silent Running. Out this week in a splendid Blu-Ray package from The Masters of Cinema Series, Silent Running stars Bruce Dern as Freeman Lowell, an astronaut who rebels against orders to destroy the spaceship’s flora in a future where plant life is extinct on Earth.

Silent Running starkly contrasts with Trumbull’s previous film, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece  2001: A Space Odyssey. While the latter is a cold, sterile film where the humans are almost as emotionless as the computers, Trumbull’s directorial effort is just about as emotional as you can get in the science-fiction genre. Bruce Dern has played a few characters with obsessions over the years such as Coach Bullion in Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut Drive, He Said and The Detective in Walter Hill’s The Driver but his career-defining performance is here, as Freeman Lowell.

Lowell isn’t easy to empathise with as he is prone to inflammatory outbursts but his strident conveyance of the film’s ecological message provides the emotional centre of the film. The film relies heavily on Dern’s performance as for a large portion of the film, Lowell has only three robots – Huey, Dewey and Louie – for company. The robots are the soul of the film and their  humanity has influenced many other sci-fi creation such as R2-D2 in Star Wars and the titular Wall-E in the recent Pixar film. However, no matter how human-like, they’re not human and as we see Lowell trying to play poker with them, his isolation from his own species getting to him, we realise that we all need humanity, no matter how much we would like to think otherwise.

The film’s memorable score by Peter Schickele goes perfectly with the visuals and by the time you get to the point where Joan Baez kicks in, the music may even be necessary to your entire understanding of what’s going on as you’re eyes are likely to be filled with tears. Trumbull’s first, and best, directorial effort is not only one of the most influential sci-fi films ever but it’s the most emotional too. In 1972 it was a film before it’s time and  nearly 40 years later with climate change upon us it seems much more at home.

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