The future. Earth is defoliated, the last remaining plant life confined to geodesic domes floating in deep space. When the order is given to destroy the gardens, the botanist rebels, murders his crewmates and sails one garden off through Saturn’s rings.
Silent Running is a film to see when you’re young, if you can arrange it that way. Revisiting it, decades after a BBC2 screening in the 70s, I was struck by how curiously illogical it all is, full of plot contrivances that don’t make any sense except as stepping stones to the next emotional moment. You can see it’s a director’s film, and the services of three writers, including Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate) and Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue), haven’t tamed the unruly vision into something narratively coherent.
The director in question is Douglas Trumbull, who supervised the special effects on 2001, and here used his expertise to create a visually impressive science fiction epic on a budget of a million dollars. The excellent extras on Masters of Cinema’s new Blu-ray fill in the details of how he managed this (with great ingenuity and skill, is the short answer).
One budgetary saving was made by having actor Bruce Dern alone on screen for much of the movie, a Robinson Crusoe figure slowly deteriorating mentally through guilt and loneliness, with only his robot servants for company. If you’re going to make a naÃ¯ve, didactic eco-fable, Dern’s casting is very smart: since the other astronauts are interchangeable louts and the scales are heavily weighted in favour of the eco-conscious space hippy, it helps that Dern makes him shrill, manic, passive-aggressive and obnoxious from time to time. Without altogether losing our sympathy, he gives the thing an edge. With his narrow, vaguely rodent-like face, blazing blue irises and tiny, pin-prick pupils, Dern stops Freeman Lowell becoming some sort of tree-hugging Jesus. The fact that the script makes him a murderer also helps, and the film pulls towards an exploration of guilt, an all-consuming torment that consumes the character even as he tries to create a new Eden.
The science is notably weak, to the point where the film seems to be more allegory than speculative fiction, and the strange and potent image of a child’s watering can in space suggests that Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince may have more to do with this movie than 2001. Indeed, even the ecological message may be a red herring. We’re told that everywhere on Earth is 75 degrees: an air-conditioned, sterile paradise has been created, rather than the uninhabitable, polluted wasteland of global warming prophecy. Lowell’s objection to that is more aesthetic or spiritual than pragmatic, ‘the simple beauty of a leaf’ being something a child should experience for the good of the soul. So while the Peter Schikele/Joan Baez songs insist on the vitality of nature, from a nostalgic point of view where all that is to perish, the film’s real interests may actually be more elusive.
John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star, made at a far lower cost than Silent Running‘s tight one million, is likely to remain for most the space hippy movie of choice, but Trumbull has an ace up his tie-dyed sleeve. His last image, of a lonely robot drifting away from us in a floating garden, is the seed from which the whole of Wall-E grew, as well as providing Spielberg with his closing credits for Close Encounters. And while Carpenter’s country song accompaniment to space travel is irresistibly comic, and Spielberg’s use of ‘When You Wish upon a Star’ inescapably kitsch, I find the combination of deep space and folk music peculiarly moving here.