The movie's themes of environmental concern and rebellion against wrongheaded authority fit very well with the time it was released (enhanced by Joan Baez's folksy soundtrack). The story is set in the year 2008, when Earth's natural environment has been destroyed. All that remains are samples of forests and waterlands preserved in space-station greenhouses orbiting Saturn until the day our planet is able to support plants and animals again. Freeman Lowell is one of the guardians of these microcosmic environments, and when official word comes that the project is too expensive to be carried on - in fact, Earthlings now seem content with their totally man-made surroundings - he quickly hatches a plan to avert orders to destroy the pod carrying his most beloved forest site. He kills his three colleagues and heads deeper into space, radioing home that an explosion has disabled his spacecraft and sent it on a trajectory where he may never be found again. Alone somewhere inside the rings of Saturn, he forms a relationship with his remaining "drone" robots, teaching them about the abundant life in their care. When a craft from home approaches to "rescue" him, he must take one last drastic step and make an even greater sacrifice to save the land in his care.
The role of Freeman Lowell was an especially important one for Bruce Dern and remains one of the actor's favorites. Although a well-educated man from an upper-crust family (and nephew of the poet Archibald MacLeish), Dern spent his first 14 years in motion pictures playing heavies in Roger Corman's biker flicks and exploitation quickies, with occasional forays into big-budget studio productions, but usually cast as what the actor referred to as "sickies." Dern was having a particularly bad year in 1970: he had lost a part in Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and his agent advised him to avoid the kind of roles in which he'd been typecast. He hadn't worked for eight months when he got a call to meet Douglas Trumbull, the young man who created the special effects for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and was making his directorial debut. Dern was skeptical but took the chance, and he never regretted it.
"The wait was worth it because I ended up getting in this movie, which is one of my favorites," Dern told an interviewer for Film Fax and Outre magazines. "Many people say it's a cult masterpiece. I have two or three that are really legitimate cult masterpieces, and Silent Running is one of them. (It) was really the beginning of my career as a guy who could star in movies or carry a movie and was something that made me feel, you know, like I was doing the right thing and I wasn't whoring out."
Dern credits the success of the movie almost entirely to Trumbull, one of two directors he worked with (the other being Alfred Hitchcock) who he considers geniuses. Trumbull began his career as a background illustrator on Navy, Air Force, and NASA films and gained fame for his revolutionary work on 2001, for which he developed the "slit-scan" machine used to create the astounding light show in the film's climactic sequence. Although Silent Running was his first project as director, he shows a sure hand in the opening sequence, where Dern is seen swimming in a peaceful forest lake by a waterfall. Bit by bit, Trumbull pulls away from the idyllic scene to slowly reveal the true setting, a station in deep space. His skill isn't all in the visual realm, either, as one might expect from a special effects expert. He creates something very touching out of the story of one man's decision to do what is right by any means necessary, and he gives it an oddly human element through the use of the tiny robot drones, predating the humanoid R2-D2 and C-3PO of George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) by several years.
The drones - a concept that initially inspired Trumbull to write the treatment for Silent Running - were the subject of much speculation when the film was released. Everyone was trying to figure out how he managed to create these life-like machines. "I've even had professional special effects people look at the pictures and say, 'You must have done that with pneumatics, or hydraulics, or some kind of offstage control,'" Trumbull told Cinefantastique in 1972. The truth is, he had robot costumes made out of plastic, operated from the inside by several young amputees whose bodies ended below the waist. Trumbull got the idea from a character in Tod Browning's classic Freaks (1932) who walked using only his arms and hands.
Silent Running continues to be a milestone, not only for fans but for the people who worked on it. "We all felt that we were doing something unusual," special effects technician Jim Rugg told Cinefantastique. "The grips and technicians and other people who worked on it all got spellbound by it. We'd all love to work for Doug Trumbull again." Unfortunately, Trumbull has only directed one other feature film of note, the sci-fi movie Brainstorm (1983), which is known more for being the movie Natalie Wood was completing when she died. But his technical wizardry hasn't gone to waste. He has contributed to the look of such movies as The Towering Inferno (1974), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and Blade Runner (1982), and created the visuals for Universal Studios' Back to the Future ride and other special attractions.
Although Dern rarely got the chance to carry a movie as the main star again, he has gone on to a distinguished career in many well-known films - sometimes as the "sickie" or bad guy, sometimes not. He has received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, and won the National Society of Film Critics Best Supporting Actor Award for his role in his close friend Jack Nicholson's Drive, He Said (1971). The scriptwriters of Silent Running have also fared well. Steven Bochco went on to create a number of acclaimed TV series, notably Hill Street Blues, and Deric Washburn was nominated for an original screenplay Oscar for the Best Picture of 1978, The Deer Hunter, directed by fellow Silent Running writer Michael Cimino.
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Producer: Michael Gruskoff, Marty Hornstein, Douglas Trumbull
Screenplay: Steven Bochco, Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn
Cinematography: Charles F. Wheeler
Editing: Aaron Stell
Original Music: Peter Schickele, Joan Baez
Principal Cast: Bruce Dern (Freeman Lowell), Cliff Potts (Wolf), Ron Rifkin (Barker), Jesse Vint (Keenan), Steve Brown, Mark Persons, Cheryl Sparks, Larry Whisenhunt (Drones).
C-90m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon