Silent Running (1972)
September 15, 2014 11:00 AM - Subscribe

In a future where all flora is extinct on Earth, an astronaut is given orders to destroy the last of Earth's botany, kept in a greenhouse aboard a spacecraft.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (11 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I found this movie deeply affecting when I was younger. The image of one of the robots being blown out into space haunted me, and the central image of the film -- of our natural world reduced to some space terrarium, and then likewise jettisoned into the void of space at the whim of bureaucrats, worked the way I think some of the best science fiction does. It probably doesn't make any literal sense, but it was a tremendous metaphoric image.

Bruce Dern is such an odd actor. He's truly eccentric, and there are aspects of his performance style that are so prickly and off-putting, I think he could only really have come to prominence in the 70s, when character actors really had their chance in the sun. There is something deeply sympathetic about his behavior on the ship, even though it involves killing other crewmen, and Dern was the right actor for the part, because there seems to be an edge of madness under his environmentalism. With another actor, the transformation to murderous activist would have needed to be detailed with greater care, but with Bruce Dern, it's like, well, of course if you try to blow the domes he's going to kill you.

This film seems so little seen, and yet has such outsized influence, including R2D2 in Star Wars, the entire look of Moon, and Joel Robinson's space suit in MST3K. Thank god the film music was left behind, though.
posted by maxsparber at 12:22 PM on September 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

Fairly well available, according to Can I Stream It (currently streaming on Netflix and Xfinity Stream Pix, plus available to rent from iTunes, Vudu and Sony Entertainment Network)
posted by filthy light thief at 12:38 PM on September 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Always liked the milieu of this film -- especially those gorgeous, efficient Douglas Trumbull visuals. Before Alien or even Dark Star, this was the first movie to make a spaceship seem like a lived-in, burnt-out, human-inhabited space, rather than a Totem of Modernity.

The plot feels very stretched just to make its 89 minute running time, though. There's really only enough narrative incident here to fill a 44-minute TV special, and not much more. The writing credits boast both Michael Cimino and Steven Bochco, so there's no shortage of writing pedigree on display, but those guys were probably so burnt out writing Columbo teleplays by this point that 44 minutes was the rhythm and timing they were geared for. Trumbull seems to have padded things out to feature length with long, windy montages of Dern space-gardening to screechy, atonal Joan Baez numbers, intercut with moments where Dern does his standard-issue hyper-intensity method acting routine, to the point where he seems in real danger of having his eyes pop right out of his goddamned head.

The saving grace for all of this are Huey, Dewey, and Louie, who are clear inspiration for WALL*E, both in design and pathos. You'll come away feeling way more emotion for them than you do for Dern, who -- while you can sympathize with his desires -- comes off mostly as a murderous ascetic nutcase.
posted by workingdankoch at 4:18 PM on September 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

I got to see Joel Hodgson's one man show "Riffing Myself" at DragonCon, and there he reveals that Silent Running was a large inspiration for the Satellite of Love, and the setting of MST3K in general.
posted by JHarris at 7:33 PM on September 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Before Alien or even Dark Star, this was the first movie to make a spaceship seem like a lived-in, burnt-out, human-inhabited space, rather than a Totem of Modernity.

Shooting on a decommissioned aircraft carrier (the Essex-class Valley Forge) helped that sense of authenticity immensely.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:07 PM on September 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

The score by Peter Schickele (aka PDQ Bach) is also particularly nice.
posted by sonascope at 4:30 AM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

maxsparber: “The image of one of the robots being blown out into space haunted me[.]”
I'm still haunted by it. Also when one of the bots is injured in an accident. As in, I love this movie — yes even the Baez numbers — but I don't watch it when it comes on because I can't really handle how those scenes make me feel.

Then again I'm the kind of crouton-petter that actually liked Clippy so…

P.S. The Making of Silent Running via Pierre André Lowenstein - Soundtrack Specialist
posted by ob1quixote at 12:45 AM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I have the soundtrack to Silent Running on green vinyl, and even worse, that I loved it so much I stole it from the library back in 1980 or thereabouts.

The cue "Saturn" is a good example of just how distinct this score was, compared to the kind of only bombastic, only magisterial music that we get in a post-John-Williams era. It's just so nervous and minor-keyed and glum and threatening. No synthesizers at all, but so many dark, unsettling little textures.
posted by sonascope at 7:37 AM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

The special effects for Saturn in this film were originally intended for 2001. Douglas Trumbull couldn't make them convincing enough within the constraints Kubrick's production schedule, so that script was rewritten to move the final Monolith to Jupiter. Trumbull never gave up on trying though, and basically taught himself how to be a Director, just to be able to have a film to put his Saturn into.
posted by radwolf76 at 12:13 AM on September 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is such a weird movie. I think it could do for a remake, but it would need a substantial amount of work. I don't think today's audience would go for rooting for a Eco-terrorist that murders his crewmates. Also, the fact there's no women in this movie whatsoever (unless you include Cheryl Sparks as one of the drones) just wouldn't work.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 1:13 PM on August 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Just checked in here to make sure this film had been well represented, since Doug passed, and it has. I would like to think that this is more the legacy for Trumbull as opposed to Brainstorm. I know he was all about those film cameras, but this is a quiet, yet passionate sci-fi story that will always be close to my heart.
posted by valkane at 9:20 PM on February 15, 2022

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