This was not the first time I’d seen Silent Running. I had watched it on the television once many years ago and it did not have much of a lasting impression on me. As such, I approached seeing the film again with vague ambivalence, expecting to find clumsy, heavy-handed environmentalist propaganda. These expectations were disappointed.
At an unspecified date in the future, the Earth has suffered an ecological cataclysm and the last forests have been placed in enormous biospheres, mounted onto a fleet of spacecraft, sent out into the outer solar system. The protagonist is Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), a crewman on one of these ships, the Valley Forge, seemingly the only member of the crew who cares about the forests and still hopes that the Earth can be re-forested. To Lowell’s distress, an inexplicable order is received to jettison and ‘nuclear destruct’ the forests; Lowell’s concern for the survival for all that is left of Earth’s natural ecosystem is such that he is forced to take the lives of the three other crewmen and steer the ship into deep space.
The rest of the film focuses on Lowell’s isolation, except for the maintenance drones he names Huey, Dewey and Louie. His attempts to cope with the burden of having killed the only “friends” he had. And, oddly enough, he handles all of this rather well.
The film wisely doesn’t focus on giving us too explicit an ecological message. Lowell is sympathetic but not particularly likeable, Dern playing him brilliantly. Further, the drones could have been twee, cutesy and irritating but, instead, are interesting and provide the closest the film gets to comic relief, making an odd comparison with HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film on which Silent Running’s director, Douglas Trumbull, was special effects supervisor.
The film is clearly a very environmentally inclined one, but it does avoid being heavy-handed, for the most part. An early scene where Lowell rants about the absence of beauty and frontiers on Earth now that everything has been absorbed into the realm of technology and efficiency felt less preachy and more prescient. This being said, there are sequences where Lowell wanders through the forest dressed in a white robe, with a large bird-of-prey perched on his arm, which struck me as being almost funny. Further, though the instrumental music in the film is what you would expect, the two songs sung by folk-musician Joan Baez were very poorly judged (‘Rejoice in the Sun’ was eerily reminiscent of The Wicker Man). However, it was pointed out to me after the film that Baez’s voice is the only female presence in the film.
There are some superb touches as well, particularly the scene where Lowell cannot bring himself to approach the body of one of the crewmen he killed in the forest. Instead, he has the drones bury him while he watches, distraught, through a monitor.
It seemed to me that the film was less concerned with an explicit environmental message and was more a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on human beings and the dehumanisation of the world. It certainly is drawing lines between the destruction of nature and the destruction of something unspecified but vital in the essence of humanity. Interestingly, in the burial scene previously mentioned, before the drones put the body in the grave, Lowell says he feels like he ought to say a prayer, but that he doesn’t know how to.
The film is always ambiguous about Lowell’s actions; whether or not they can be justified, and the ending doesn’t leave us with clear answers either. Lowell varies from being at times just as capricious and indolent as his crewmates were (he memorably attempts to play poker with the drones) to being wracked with guilt over his actions, to being fanatically concerned with the well-being of the ecosystem he has assumed custody over. The film also remains ambiguous about the impact of technology: though the technological encroachment has been disastrous for nature, the drones are the most easily likable characters and take an active role in preserving the forest.
Ultimately, this isn’t the film you may be expecting. It’s mature, moving, funny and often profound. You do have to grant it several conceits in order to enjoy it, but once you’ve done that, you’re in for a very interesting experience, one more people ought to appreciate.
Silent Running was shown as part of the ‘UEA Philosophers at the Cinema’ science fiction classics series at Cinema City, introduced by Dr. Jerry Goodenough and Dr. Rupert Read, followed by a Q & A. The final film in the series, Sunshine, will be showing on 11th November, and will be introduced by a member of faculty, with a Q & A to follow. There will be another series next semester.