There’s a line in Silent Running, a film released 50 years ago this month, that hit me extremely hard when I heard it: “If people were interested, something would have been done a long time ago.” The line is said in response to the news that Earth has decided to abandon all of its efforts to save its own plant life. Instead, humanity is resigning to living a desolate life without plants. Of the four characters present for the news, three are excited by it. But the other, a botanist named Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), is not. And he decides to kill the other three to make sure nature is preserved.
Silent Running is directed by the recently passed legend Douglas Trumbull, and I’d never seen it until last week. It was always a movie I’d heard of and recognised an image or two from but it wasn’t until Trumbull’s death, as well as the massive 50 year anniversary, that I figured I’d give it a shot. And to hear a character so brazenly dismissive of environmental issues, in a movie released half a century ago, was hugely disheartening. Fifty years ago it was, “If people were interested, something would have been done a long time ago.” Today, it’s been a long time since that line was uttered — and very little has changed.
“Disheartening” is pretty much the entire vibe of Silent Running, an impressively visual film that tries to end on an optimistic, uplifting note, but is really much more pessimistic and sad. On a spaceship named the Valley Forge, four men work at preserving geodomes with plants and wildlife that’s no longer sustainable on Earth. Of the four, only Lowell seems really invested, so when news comes in that the project is being abandoned, he does the only thing he can do: goes rogue, kills the other three, and tries to keep nature alive as long as possible. From there he develops relationships with the onboard drone robots, which he nicknames Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and grapples not just with loneliness and boredom, but the consequences of his actions, all of which is crushingly depressing.
What I found most interesting about Silent Running is the way it constructs the argument about preservation as a battle between selfishness and selflessness — which, let’s face it, is the root of most serious issues. Government, environment, schools, you name it. Either you care about yourself or you care about others. And here, Trumbull frames that story in a very accessible way. Everyone working on the Valley Forge is there to preserve the nature on board. That’s the job. But when they’re given an order to blow it up, for no apparent reason, three of them are fine with it. They’ve been in space a long time and just want to go home. If that means giving up on a mission that could save Earth? That’s fine. Which, as a human being, you understand, even if you don’t agree with it. You too would want to go home and be with your family and friends. And that’s the point. The film clearly show us why each side does what it does — why three men gladly try and destroy the plant life when told to do so, and why Lowell decides to save it.
Beyond that, some of the basic story beats in the film don’t quite work. For example, I never quite understood why the decision was made to abandon the preservation project. It just happens. Plus, there’s no information given as to why or how the preservation project was launched in the first place. The whole thing seems like a fairly massive undertaking. Maybe if the movie offered a bit more context or back story, the decision to abandon the project would’ve been clearer, and the movie would’ve been better as a result.
Because while Silent Running is thematically and emotionally complex, it’s not all that entertaining. Bruce Dern’s performance is manic in a fun way and the second act has some absolutely goofy scenes of him interacting with the robots. Beyond that though, much of what makes the film watchable are the stunning practical effects, which you’d expect from Trumbull, who did 2001: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick a few years earlier. From the machines running games on the ship, to the ships themselves, and even the robot characters, which are somehow just actors in suits, it’s all next level stuff especially for the time.
Adding to the film’s general malaise is the eventful ending. After an undetermined amount of time on his own, it looks like Lowell might have to finally pay the consequences for disobeying orders and killing his crew members. So he sends the one final remaining biodome off into space (with a robot to take care of it) and takes his own life due to his guilt and loneliness. On the one hand, the fact that some plant life will remain is fairly hopeful, and the film lingering on the floating dome as the credits roll a la Close Encounters (though this film came first) bolsters that thought. On the other hand, our hero is dead and, really, who is going to find this dome floating in space besides the humans who decided to destroy it? Just before all this Lowell tells a story about putting a message in a bottle and never hearing back. That’s what he does with the dome. He sets humanity’s future loose on a hope and a prayer that it’ll be found by someone who cares. It’s a one in a billion shot. Which, to me, really undercut much of the character’s purpose.
Then you step back and realise that in the 50 years since the release of Silent Running, nothing has changed. Every day the environment continues to deteriorate in ways the filmmakers probably never even imagined. Reality itself has become a sinister post-credits scene Douglas Trumbull certainly hoped to avoid. Nevertheless, as a result, life made his sad, slow, beautiful movie that much more poignant and relevant, 50 years later.