Skip to main content

On Earth, everywhere you go, the temperature is 75 degrees. Everything is the same; all the people are exactly the same. Now what kind of life is that?


Silent Running
(1972)

Douglas Trumbull’s directorial debut (the ill-fated Brainstorm remains his only other feature) is sometimes cited as showing the humanity that the epic he established himself with (in the capacity of photographic effects supervisor), 2001: A Space Odyssey, lacks. In some respects, Silent Running goes to the opposite extreme of 2001’s sterile environment of emotionally remote astronauts, cloaking itself with overt ecological themes and topical-at-the-time back-to-nature thinking. It is also possessed of a profound melancholy, emphasized by Peter Schickele’s score. The film ends with a small victory, or at least a glimmer of hope, but it’s protagonist is denied any sense of triumph due to the lengths he is willing to go to in order to protect his ideals.


Even the film’s production is a result of an end-of-an-era sensibility. Easy Rider had been a massive, unexpected, success for Columbia and Universal had the bright idea of trying to catch that kind of lightning in a bottle for themselves. They let five young filmmakers go to work on (relatively) low budget films; Silent Running, The Hired Hand, The Last Movie, Taking Off and American Graffiti. The entries from Easy Rider alumni crashed and burned, but Graffiti’s enormous box office makes the one-for-five result seem shrewd.

The earnestness of its message – and some of the narrative devices used to relay it – set against the realism of its characterisation, performances and cinematography represents a strange dichotomy within Silent Running, perhaps a consequence of Trumbull’s relative youth (he was only 30 when it came out). 


The titles play over a view of the space greenhouses, which Bruce Dern’s Freeman (yes, Free-man… ) Lowell tends, to the sound of Joan Baez (could you get more ‘60s?). It’s all-but screaming “hippy movie”. The scenario is one of capitalism run riot over any concerns of preservation of the natural world, familiar now but unfamiliar then.  Freeman is Adam in his Eden. He is introduced naked, like the first man, and descends from there. We see him go bare-footed in a monastic habit and preache to his colleagues with messianic fervour (later, he will more resemble Cain). But, despite the identification with archetypes, the characters themselves (although we are mostly in the company of Dern) are presented with an eye towards realism of motivation and behaviour that was becoming the norm in this period. Well in advance of Alien, or even Dark Star, the crew are weary and cynical. They want to go home, even one without any greenery left, and look for distractions from the mundanity of their work. Such that they accept instructions to detonate the greenhouses (the motivation for the order being, surprise, profit) without batting an eyelid and become excited about the operation (it is something different, and it means they will return to Earth).


Freeman is the exception, because he has found his salvation in returning to, and attuning with, nature. His impassioned speeches regarding the fate of the Earth and the blindness that has allowed the loss of this world, might come across as overly preachy and trite if not for the impassioned performance of Bruce Dern. He carries much of the film solo, and if he was commonly a bit part villain prior to Silent Running, he was frequently – as here – expected to be on-the-edge in subsequent roles.

In an interview, Dern commented that fans of the film who came up to him were always unable to say when they saw it, except to say they saw it when they were young. I certainly wasn’t that old when I first encountered Silent Running. Relevant to this is that, like 2001, it has a decidedly adult tone despite being considered acceptable for general viewing (both films are U certificate). There’s some bright red ‘70s blood when Dern’s leg gets messed up, but it’s more surprising to see a film that is emotionally so raw, where attitudes and behaviour and mental breakdown are not softened or made palatable, get off so lightly (I’d argue it’s a PG film – but it’s got cute robots!)


Dern kills the first of his crewmates in an altercation as he attempts to prevent the detonation of his geodesic dome. If that wasn’t premeditated, the fashion in which he dispatches the other two definitely is. As he later says, “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to excuse what I did, but I had to do it”. He’s not a character who provides easy audience identification. Freeman is unstable throughout, first because of the threat to his beloved forest, then due to the guilt his actions have caused (there’s even a touch of satire, as his he is told by Earth, “God bless you, Freeman. You’re a hell of an American”).


Freeman’s extreme state of agitation is not what children viewing will remember most (consciously at least), as there are three robot pals who are fun to be with! Who mirror the three crewmen he killed (Freeman shows affection and concern for the drones, something we never see when he addresses his sub-human forest-slaying colleagues).  If we don’t get on board with Bruce getting brutal with his fellows, neither do we ever identify with them. Trumbull pulls a Kubrick trick in creating the strongest audience bond with the non-human characters. Indeed, it’s Dern’s empathy for their wellbeing that allows us to relate to him, even as he takes extreme measures. The loss of Louie (and finding of his foot by his friends later) and then the injury of Huey are the most affecting scenes in the film.


It seems harsh of Freeman not to let Huey hobble around with Duey on the drifting greenhouse, requiring the drone to meet his fate, but it is consistent with his viewpoint. Only purity and innocence are allowed to exist in this Eden; Freeman is corrupted in mind and Huey in body. Duey, who is not self-aware (has not eaten of the Tree of Knowledge) may remain, in harmony with the environment.

Trumbull devised the story and his original concept had Lowell encountering aliens, with a less foregrounded environmental message. Three different writers ultimately took passes at it; Steven Bocho, Michael Cimino and Deric Washburn. None of them were able to disguise the rather baffling lack of deductive skills shown by Freeman when the plants start dying. He’d been tending the forests on the Valley Forge for eight years but he doesn’t realise that it’s a lack of sunlight would affect their health? It’s a blundering plot development of the kind that puts one in mind of (more simplistic) kids’ movies, and consequently sticks out like a sore thumb. Yet it serves to support the overarching message of preservation.


The effects work is tremendous, and largely holds up with the passing years. The model shots are as beautiful as you’d expect from the 2001 man, while the shooting of the film in the actual Valley Forge aircraft carrier lends a no-frills austerity to the interiors. Trumbull doesn’t feel the need make everything science-proof (and he doesn’t have the budget), so there’s no explanation for the artificial gravity as there is with Kubrick’s film. And he’s not about to let it get in the way of telling the story (Freeman can communicate with Earth from Saturn in real time). The pre-R2D2/Black Hole/Wall-E robots were performed by amputees and like so much of the design adds verisimilitude.


Silent Running undoubtedly has flaws in terms of plotting, but it’s a film designed to provoke an emotional response rather than an analytical one (there goes this review, then). As such my reaction is much the same now as when I first saw it; a sad and beautiful piece of work that resonates long after it has ended. Even Joan Baez mournful tones contribute to that end, distracting as they are and off-putting to many, ‘60s backwash providing an unlikely complement to the used-future on display.

*****



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Trouble’s part of the circus. They said Barnum was in trouble when he lost Tom Thumb.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
(SPOILERS) Anyone of a mind that it’s a recent development for the Oscars to cynically crown underserving recipients should take a good look at this Best Picture winner from the 25thAcademy Awards. In this case, it’s generally reckoned that the Academy felt it was about time to honour Hollywood behemoth Cecil B DeMille, by that point into his seventies and unlikely to be jostling for garlands much longer, before it was too late. Of course, he then only went and made a bona fide best picture contender, The Ten Commandments, and only then pegged it. Because no, The Greatest Show on Earth really isn’t very good.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

What lit the fire that set off our Mr Reaper?

Death Wish (2018)
(SPOILERS) I haven’t seen the original Death Wish, the odd clip aside, and I don’t especially plan to remedy that, owing to an aversion to Charles Bronson when he isn’t in Once Upon a Time in the West and an aversion to Michael Winner when he wasn’t making ‘60s comedies or Peter Ustinov Hercule Poirots. I also have an aversion to Eli Roth, though (this is the first of his oeuvre I’ve seen, again the odd clip aside, as I have a general distaste for his oeuvre), and mildly to Bruce when he’s on autopilot (most of the last twenty years), so really, I probably shouldn’t have checked this one out. It was duly slated as a fascistic, right-wing rallying cry, even though the same slaters consider such behaviour mostly okay if the protagonist is super-powered and wearing a mask when taking justice into his (or her) own hands, but the truth is this remake is a quite serviceable, occasionally amusing little revenger, one that even has sufficient courage in its skewed convictions …

Monster? We’re British, you know.

Horror Express (1972)
(SPOILERS) This berserk Spanish/British horror boasts Hammer titans Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (both as good guys!) to its name, and cloaked in period trappings (it’s set in 1906), suggests a fairly standard supernatural horror, one with crazy priests and satanic beasts. But, with an alien life form aboard the Trans-Siberian Express bound for Moscow, Horror Express finishes up more akin to The Cassandra Crossing meets The Thing.

Countess Petrovski: The czar will hear of this. I’ll have you sent to Siberia. Captain Kazan: I am in Siberia!
Christopher Lee’s Alexander Saxton, anthropologist and professor of the Royal Geological Society, has retrieved a frozen corpse from Manchuria. Believing it might be the Missing Link he crates it up to transport home via the titular train. Other passengers include his colleague and rival Dr Wells (Cushing), an international spy, and an antic monk called Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza, strikingly lunatic), who for some rea…

You had to grab every single dollar you could get your hands on, didn't you?

Triple Frontier (2019)
(SPOILERS) Triple Frontier must have seemed like a no-brainer for Netflix, even by their standards of indiscriminately greenlighting projects whenever anyone who can’t get a job at a proper studio asks. It had, after all, been a hot property – nearly a decade ago now – with Kathryn Bigelow attached as director (she retains a producing credit) and subsequently JC Chandor, who has seen it through to completion. Netflix may not have attracted quite the same level of prospective stars – Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum were all involved at various points – but as ever, they haven’t stinted on the production. To what end, though? Well, Bigelow’s involvement is a reliable indicator; this is a movie about very male men doing very masculine things and suffering stoically for it.

I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
(SPOILERS) There isn’t, of course, anything left to say about 2001: A Space Odyssey, although the devoted still try, confident in their belief that it’s eternally obliging in offering unfathomable mystery. And it does seem ever responsive to whatever depths one wishes to plumb in analysing it for themes, messages or clues either about what is really going on out there some around Jupiter, or in its director’s head. Albeit, it’s lately become difficult to ascertain which has the more productive cottage industry, 2001 or The Shining, in the latter regard. With Eyes Wide Shut as the curtain call, a final acknowledgement to the devout that, yes, something really emphatic was going under Stanley Kubrick’s hood and it’s there, waiting to be exhumed, if you only look with the right kind of eyes.

Poor A. A. Milne. What a ghastly business.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
The absolutely true story of how P. L. Travers came to allow Walt Disney to adapt Mary Poppins, after 20 years’ persistent begging on the latter’s part. Except, of course, it isn’t true at all. Walt has worked his magic from beyond the grave over a fairly unremarkable tale of mutual disagreement. Which doesn’t really matter if the result is a decent movie that does something interesting or though-provoking by changing the facts… Which I’m not sure it does. But Saving Mr. Banks at least a half-decent movie, and one considerably buoyed by the performances of its lead actors.

Actually, Mr. Banks is buoyed by the performances of its entire cast. It’s the script that frequently lets the side down, laying it on thick when a lighter touch is needed, repeating its message to the point of nausea. And bloating it out not so neatly to the two-hour mark when the story could have been wrapped up quite nicely in a third less time. The title itself could perhaps be seen as rubbi…