Tending to these forests is our hero, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern). Although Lowell is a bit of an outcast among his shipmates on the spaceship Valley Forge, he has a deep love of the forest. Thus, it comes as a blow to Lowell's spirit when the forces that be order the destruction of the forests and the return of the astronauts to Earth. Overjoyed, his partners on the craft gleefully set about jettisoning the domes into space and destroying them with nuclear bombs. Lowell steps in to save the forest and its inhabitants by killing the other humans and hijacking the ship, leading the authorities to believe that the ship is damaged and out of control, which isn't stretching the truth too much, considering the overkill of using nuclear weapons to destroy glass domes.
Unable to care for the forests by himself, Lowell programs the robots aboard the ship to maintain the Valley Forge and to tend to the forests. These are pretty sophisticated robots: although programmed by physical cards (which apparently have to be soldered together), they understand human speech and even cheat at poker. Despite their companionship and aid, Lowell's mental health begins to fail, as does the state of the forests.
At first, Silent Running can be a bit of a chore to watch. The plot moves slowly, and most of the actors are stuck in that "mug-the-camera" 70's mind-set. Dern, however, has an intriguingly belligerent screen presence, and when he finally puts his plan in motion, it's some exciting stuff. If you can make it through the first half-hour, you'll be rewarded.
The movie is directed by Douglas Trumbull, who won an Oscar for the special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Silent Running features effects by both Trumbull and John Dykstra, who would go on to win an Oscar for the effects in Star Wars. As one might expect, the effects in Silent Running are fairly good for the time period. Beyond just optical and model effects, they've also made an attempt to design the future and make it disorienting to viewers both in 1971 and today. Note the oddly-steered go-carts and the ubiquitous cargo containers with hexagonal sides. Together, Dykstra and Trumbull have created an unusually believable world in which the story takes place.
Fortunately, none of the companies with logos featured in Silent Running have suffered the Blade Runner curse. American Airlines, Coca Cola, and Dow Chemical, as featured in Silent Running, are all still with us. Cuisinart and Atari, as featured in Blade Runner, have all but disappeared from the face of America's corporate culture.
The moral of Silent Running is "Don't send crazy people into space." As the film winds down, Dern convinces us that he is indeed off the deep end. Fortunately, by this point in the movie, we're also convinced that Lowell and (especially) his robot buddies are worth caring about. When one of the trio is hurt in an accident, the resulting scene is about as heartrending as that bit at the end of The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy turns to the Scarecrow and says "I think I'll miss you most of all." Kinda gets ya right there, don't it?
Silent Running is a film which is greatly underrated and overlooked as a science fiction hallmark. You can see the prints it left on the cinema landscape in Star Wars and numerous films after it. All this and a groovy soundtrack featuring Joan Baez!
Review date: 4/29/97
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