Fifty years after its unsuccessful theatrical release and later elevation to cult status, Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running is a dated, but still intriguing piece of didactic science fiction. Taking place in the early years of the 21st century, it posits a time in which all plant life on Earth has been destroyed, and the only remaining traces of vegetation are in carefully nurtured forest biospheres aboard enormous ships in the depths of space.
Bruce Dern, who stars as Freeman Lowell, one of four men aboard the spaceship Valley Forge, which maintains four biospheres, was already a veteran character actor with a decade of experience and dozens of credits on various television shows and supporting roles in a handful of films, but he had never headlined a film. Unlike his three shipmates (Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, and Jesse Vint), Lowell is a staunch environmentalist, perhaps the last human being who still regards plant life as something worth cherishing. Unfortunately for a conscientious tree-hugger, there are precious few trees left to hug, and when the call comes in from Earth that the project has been deemed a failure and the biospheres should be jettisoned, Lowell rebels. He kills the other men on his ship, but only manages to salvage one of the biospheres. Pretending that his ship has been fatally damaged, he hopes to disappear into the depths of space and find a suitable planet to foliate with Earth’s plant life.
Interestingly enough, all of this takes place within the first half-hour of the film, leaving it with more than an hour of what is effectively Lowell onboard a ship by himself. Well, he is not entirely alone. He has as company a pair of drones’”dumpy, squarish, and slightly awkward two-legged robots that make R2-D2 look suave by comparison. Re-christened Huey and Duey, these faceless machines become surrogate human companions for Lowell, and the relationship they build together is surprisingly touching, especially given the fact that the drones cannot talk or express much beyond wobbling back and forth and extending their mechanical arms.
Thus, Silent Running is effectively two movies’”a character study of the futuristic hippie Lowell and his ability to maintain his sanity by building a genuine friendship with two inexpressive robots and a slightly preachy sci-fi fable about the ultimate cost of pollution and nuclear waste. The screenplay, which was penned by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, and Steven Bochco, manages to get its green-thumb message across without beating us over the head too much, although many of the early scenes between Lowell and the other men on the ship consist largely of his preaching to them in vain about the wonders of nature and the food it produces. Washburn and Cimino, for whom this was their first credited screenplay, would go on to co-write Cimino’s Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter (1978), while Bochco became one of the most prolific TV producers in the 1980s and ’90s, with such shows as Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue to his credit.
When he directed Silent Running, Douglas Trumbull was best known for his innovative work in special effects, especially for his groundbreaking achievements in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the film that made possiblr Silent Running and most other ‘œserious’ science fiction films at the time. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the special effects here are quite impressive, especially given the age of the film and its limited budget of $1 million. Using detailed models and relying almost entirely on in-camera effects using front-screen projection, Trumbull managed to create a believable sense of giant ships cruising through outer space. The interiors, which were shot inside a decommissioned aircraft carrier, have an effectively confined, industrial feel to them, which makes it all the more moving when Lowell steps into one of the glass-domed biospheres and finds himself surrounded by trees and wildlife.
In the lead role, Bruce Dern is consistently impressive, especially given that this was his first leading role. He appears in virtually every scene, and the entire film hinges on our willingness to accept his decision to kill fellow human beings in order to save plant life. On paper, it sounds like a ludicrous, indefensible choice, but Dern makes it understandable (it doesn’t hurt, of course, that his shipmates are egregious jerks).
Although it stumbles at times, and the painfully sincere songs by Joan Baez induce more embarrassed giggles than contemplation, Silent Running remains a thought-provoking film. Measured and slow-moving, but undeniably poignant, especially in its final moments, it reminds us of the vast potential for the science-fiction genre to deal with significant social issues in unique and moving ways.
Silent Running Blu-ray
1.85:1AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 monaural
Isolated music and effects trackSubtitles
EnglishSupplementsAudio commentary by critics Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw
Audio commentary by Douglas Trumbull and actor Bruce Dern
‘œNo Turning Back’ video interview with film music historian Jeff Bond
‘œFirst Run,’ visual essay by writer/filmmaker Jon Spira
‘œThe Making of Silent Running‘ 1972 on-set documentary
‘œSilent Running by Douglas Trumbull’ featurette
‘œDouglas Trumbull: Then and Now’ featurette
‘œA Conversation with Bruce Dern’ featurette
Insert booklet featuring new writing on the film by Barry Forshaw and Peter Tonguette (first pressing only)Distributor
Arrow VideoRelease Date
November 17, 2020
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Silent Running features a new 2K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative that was approved by director Douglas Trumbull. The 1080p/AVC-encoded image is absolutely gorgeous, maintaining the grain and texture of the original celluloid while also significantly increasing clarity and detail in the image (to the point that we can see some defects in the visual effects, one of which is pointed out in the audio commentary). Colors leans warm, with skin tones boasting a more natural look than the previously available Universal Blu-ray. Detail is outstanding, which really allows us to appreciate both the physical production design and the many in-camera effects that Trumbull used throughout the film. The original two-channel monaural soundtrack, which is presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, is understandably limited. Where it should be booming (particularly during scenes with nuclear explosions), it has only a slight punch, although it should be noted that it is clean of any hiss or distortion. There is also an isolated music and effects track.
In terms of supplements, Arrow has produced quite a few new offerings, starting with an entertaining audio commentary by film critics Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw, who were recorded together and talk in depth about the film’s history, its place within the science fiction genre, and all manner of random trivia and insight about those who worked on the film. This is a film they clearly both love and admire. There are also two new featurettes: ‘œNo Turning Back’ (14 min.), in which film music historian Jeff Bond discusses Peter Schickele’s score and the use of Joan Baez’s songs, and ‘œFirst Run’ (14 min.), a visual essay by writer and filmmaker Jon Spira that explores the evolution of the film’s screenplay. We also get an extensive behind-the-scenes gallery, and the packaging includes a reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork by Arik Roper and an illustrated insert booklet with new essays on the film by Forshaw and film and art critic Peter Tonguette. Also included are all the supplements that were previously included on Universal’s 2002 DVD. This includes an audio commentary by Trumbull and Dern, which was recorded in October of 2000. They reminisce about the making of the film and the state of Hollywood in the early 1970s, when studio executives were daring (and desperate) enough to allow untested filmmakers like Trumbull to have complete free reign over their films. We also get ‘œThe Making of Silent Running,’ a 49-minute documentary made in 1971. Made in a somewhat pretentious, self-reflexive vein in which the filmmakers feel the need to reference themselves, it is still a worthwhile look at how the film was made (and an entertaining time capsule). It features a good deal of behind-the-scenes footage, as well as interviews with Trumbull, Dern, editor Aaron Stell, and cinematographer Chuck Wheeler, among others. Trumbull also appears in two archival interviews: ‘œSilent Running by Douglas Trumbull,’ a circa-2000 half-hour video interview that is interspersed with clips from the film and photographs of the production (in a nutshell, it is an updated making-of featurette from Trumbull’s perspective 30 years later), and ‘œDouglas Trumbull: Then and Now,’ a five-minute video interview that focuses on Trumbull’s true career passion, which is developing large-format film processes and designing interactive video games and simulation rides (he was the man behind the old Back to the Future Ride at Universal Studios). Dern appears in an 11-minute video interview, in which he has nothing but good memories in looking back at the making of Silent Running and its surprising longevity.
Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Arrow Video