Throwback Thursday: Silent Running (1972)

When you think of science fiction movies, there are certain things that comes to most peoples’ minds: images of robots engaged in a furious battle with humans; spaceships playing cat-and-mouse in an asteroid belt; distant ethereal planets with undiscovered species waiting to eat unsuspecting visitors; possibly even some violence, perhaps some blood or body parts floating around in the vacuum of space. So the last thing anyone would expect for a science fiction film is a “G” rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, but that’s exactly what director Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 film ‘Silent Running’ earned.

In the film, the spaceship Valley Forge is part of a fleet sent into deep space to protect what little remains of the Earth’s environment. Each ship carries a series of geodesic domes containing a forest or desert landscape, complete with plants and wildlife, and the crews maintain them for the eventual return to Earth. After eight years in space, the ships finally receive the message to return home – but without the precious environmental domes. The crews are ordered to destroy them with nuclear devices.

This doesn’t sit well with Freeman Lowell, the one crew member aboard the Valley Forge who remembers what life was like when man could run through the forest, swim in a lake, eat real fruits and vegetables instead of the processed and synthesized cubes they’re fed aboard ship. He mutinies, killing the crew in an attempt to save the last of the domes from being destroyed. With only three service droids to help, Lowell sets out to keep his beloved forest environment far from the hands of the government.

Looking at the pedigree (both past and future) of the people associated with the film, a “G” rating is a bit surprising. First-time director Douglas Trumbull is probably best known for the visual effects in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘ and ‘The Andromeda Strain.’ As for the screenwriters, Michael Cimino would go on to win an Oscar for directing ‘The Deer Hunter,’ Deric Wasbhurn would earn an Oscar nomination for the co-writing the same film, and Steven Bochco would pen many now-classic television series such as ‘Hill Street Blues,’ ‘N.Y.P.D. Blue,’ and ‘Doogie Howser, M.D.’

The eco-gist of the story should be quite intriguing, especially given the state of the environment nowadays. However, just when the tension begins building between Lowell and the rest of the crew, ‘Silent Running’ cuts to bright scenes of Lowell meandering around the forest dome sadly viewing his plants and vegetables as a falcon lands on his arm while Joan Baez warbles an environmental warning. In a film like this that seems to rely on the quiet of deep space, this “Up with People” moment was a bit jarring and caused the film to begin veering into blatant propaganda territory.

Bruce Dern gives a good performance as Freeman Lowell. He seems like your typical “aging hippie” – environmentally friendly on the surface, only wanting to do what he believes to be the right thing. And yet, some of his actions didn’t make sense. He’s an environmentalist but couldn’t figure out that the plants needed sunlight? He probably didn’t have enough time to learn that kind of stuff, since he was busy reprogramming the droids to play poker.

For a film that seemed to tout protecting the environment, our hero doesn’t interact with it much. He spends only a brief scene showing the droids how to plant a tree, and they get that task wrong; from then on, he’s either messing with the droids’ programming or sleeping in his bunk. As mentioned before, he didn’t even notice that the plants in the dome were overgrown or in any kind of trouble until he saw images from a droid’s camera. It made me wonder when he last checked the dome himself. More inconsistencies pop up, both with Lowell’s actions and with the physics of the spaceship itself that make the story less realistic.

One thing the movie has going for it in spades is the visual effects. Even without laser fights or starships exploding into millions of fragments, Trumbull’s miniatures look authentic enough to make me believe the Valley Forge, forested domes and all, was floating around in space.

Overall, though, with its pro-environment message and lack of blood, violence and most things I tend to associate with science fiction films, perhaps the “G” rating isn’t so unexpected after all – and perhaps your expectations for the film should be tempered as well.