Before he became known for playing cantankerous men, Bruce Dern was sent to outer space to play botanist and ecologist Freeman Lowell in the 1972 environmental science fiction film, ‘Silent Running.’ To be fair, the character of Lowell does have some cantankerous qualities but his hope for the universe to embrace nature once again supersedes his crotchety tendencies. Dern delivers a profound performance in this preachy sci fi flick that happens to be today’s Throwback Thursday, a column where ScienceFiction.com looks at great examples of science fiction from yesteryear.
Released by Universal Pictures, ‘Silent Running’ was directed by special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull. Trumbull gained prominence in the film community after serving as the special effects supervisor on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘The Andromeda Strain’. The film had a smaller budget ($1 million) and Trumbull was able to use some of the special effects techniques that he had originated in his earlier work. ‘Silent Running’ features a soundtrack by film composer and parodist Peter Schickele. It includes two songs co-written with Diane Lampert that were performed by singer-songwriter Joan Baez.
‘Silent Running’ takes place in the future aboard the ‘Valley Forge’, a space freighter owned by American Airlines that orbits Saturn. ‘Valley Forge,’ along with other freighters, carry geodesic domes filled with plant life that once populated Earth. Earth is now bereft of vegetation, but its inhabitants no longer experience strife. The temperature worldwide is set to a comfortable 75 degrees Fahrenheit. While there are plans to reforest Earth, there doesn’t seem to be any rush.
Lowell seems to be the only one in the entire universe with a genuine passion for flora and fauna. He eagerly awaits the day when Earth will return to being a leafy green Garden of Eden. He spends much of his time lecturing at his idiotic crewman (one of them includes actor Ron Rifkin who played Sloane on ‘Alias’). Devouring a cantaloupe he grew himself in his space garden, Lowell asserts this is “nature’s greatest gift.”
However, the crew receives orders from Earth to abandon and detonate the domes. Lowell is left with a very drastic decision to make, one that may (depending on your political beliefs) have cost him his humanity.
‘Silent Running’ isn’t remarkably perceptive and is a bit holier-than-thou (did I mention songs by Joan Baez?) but Dern takes root as Lowell and allows his story in ‘Silent Running’ to blossom. Take a look at the trailer!