Monday, November 21, 2011

Silent Running (1972)

Let me start right out by saying that there are a LOT of things wrong with Silent Running, not the least of which is THE MESSAGE, which it beats you over the head with until you're dizzy. Here's the set up. Earth is ecologically destroyed. So, the human race in its wisdom has taken all of the earth's remaining natural habitats, enclosed them in these really cool glass domes, attached them to these two-mile-long space ships and sent them on a round the solar system cruise while we clean up the earth and get it ready to receive its forests once again. Ah, but people being the greedy and short-sighted cretins that they are decide that they really don't need all of those trees as much as they need those really cool space ships, which could be pressed into service hauling fee-paying cargo to...someplace. So the crews of the ships are ordered to jettison the domes and - wait for it - blow them up! But one poor sot named Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) can't accept this. The forests must be saved at all costs. So he kills his fellow crew members in order to save the last dome. Then he takes control of the ship and heads out away from earth where he will ostensibly find...I dunno...something. To help him run the ship and tend to the last dome, Lowell has three little robot companions that he names Huey, Dewy and Louie. And so this happy quartet happily maintains their ship and forest. But, guilt begins to wear on Lowell. And his little robot companions start to get picked off one by one. Finally, there's Lowell and one good droid remaining. Realizing that he is going insane with grief and that the remaining ships from earth are pursuing him, Lowell teaches the his one undamaged droid to tend the forest on its own. Then he jettisons the dome and blows up his ship, killing himself and his remaining crippled droid. The last thing we see is the little dome floating in the vastness of space as Joan Baez clobbers us over the head once more with THE MESSAGE.

So what's wrong with the film? Well, okay, for starters, why are the domes in outer space to begin with? I mean, if the earth is so polluted that all of the remaining forests have to be put under glass, wouldn't it have been a whole lot cheaper - not to mention safer - to build the domes right there on terra firma, rather than blasting them into deep space? And couldn't a world capable of building such awesome spaceships figure out a way to protect its remaining natural resources? And if the little droids could be trained to take care of the plants and animals in the domes just as well as a person, then why did they need the people up on the ships to take care of the domes? Why not just program the robots from the start? And when they decide to return the ships to commercial service, why BLOW UP THE DOMES?? Why not simple jettison the domes with the little robots on them to take care of them and send the ships home? That way they could always go back and pick up the domes at some future date when they wizened up. After all, it's not like they need the domes - they BLEW THEM UP! And finally, why did we have to have Joan Baez driving THE MESSAGE home in song like someone driving spikes through our skulls? The movie pushed THE MESSAGE just fine without her whiny singing.

Having said all of that, I would now like to say that I really love this movie. No, it's true. Silent Running has great visuals, outstanding models (this from the era when they used to actually construct space ship models), a pretty good story, and what is probably Bruce Dern's finest on-camera performance ever. I mean, Freeman Lowell is a really complicated character. Here's a guy who commits a serious wrong (killing all of his crew mates) in order to prevent another serious wrong (the wanton destruction of earth's remaining habitats) and then goes slowly insane trying to deal with the grief he's suffering on account of what he's done. And Dern pulls it off brilliantly. This is essentially a one-man movie (not counting the robots, who almost steal the show). Dern is passionate, even zealous in his love of nature. Yet he's also a scientist, and so he has the cold, rational aspect to him as well. But above all, he's a human being who cannot deal with the fact that he has taken the lives of other human beings and that he must spend the rest of his life in isolation. It takes a really good actor to pull all of this off and make it believable. The only other actors I've seen do it as well are Will Smith in I am Legend and Paul Mantee in Robinson Crusoe on Mars. I will also point out that the destruction of the Valley Forge at the end of the movie is so well done that it puts the destruction of the Death Star at the end of Star Wars to shame. Lucas should have taken a cue from Douglas Trumbull and gone with the less is more theory.

Silent Running is rated G and has a runtime of 89 minutes. It's filmed in technicolor and widescreen.

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