Film Review: Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1972)

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Starship Valley Forge

Verdict: 10/10

Warning! Minor Spoilers

Silent Running could well be one of the least subtle films  ever made in terms of its message. It’s clear even from the opening shots of the movie what that message is: The Earth is an irreplaceable world of natural beauty that should be preserved at all costs. Its a message many who watch will find preachy and distracting but others will consider true and important. No matter what you think Silent Running is a beautiful, emotional and well constructed film that works making a brilliant movie.

Freeman Lowell: But they’re not replaceable! (When told to destroy the last forests)

Silent Running follows botanist Freeman Lowell (Played very convincingly and emotionally by Bruce Dern) who resides on a spaceship orbiting Saturn called Valley Forge. The Valley Forge is one of about three ships all carrying the same cargo. But there xargo isn’t the usual that Eddie Stobart trucks carry. These ships carry the most important cargo in the universe: The last forests of a dead Earth, deliberately destroyed by man in order  to create a world that is totally efficient (I’m not entirely sure how this works but hey ho!) The idea of having these ships orbit with the last forests is so that one day they can return to earth and bring nature back to the dead planet. This mission has been going  for 8 years with Lowell enjoying his duty to protect and maintain the forests unlike his three shipmates. They want nothing more than to dump the forests and return home as soon as possible. This obviously creates a lot of tension between Lowell and the others. Lowell represents the forgotten conscience of mans actions and his duty to protect nature and his crew who represent the rest of humanity in the movie, solely intent on profit and self interest.

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Lowell becomes the sole guardian of the forest

About 15 minutes in the crew get a message form command. A message Lowell thinks is the recall to Earth that hes been waiting for years. But its not. Unfortunately for Lowell, the crew of all the freighters are told that their mission has been aborted because the forests cost too much to maintain and the ships are to be returned to commercial service. The forests?  To be Jettisoned and destroyed with nuclear charges. Most of the crew of the Valley Forge are delighted. They finally get to return home. But Lowell suffers complete distress and a near mental breakdown. The forests he’s spent eight years protecting, nurturing and preserving are about to be wiped out in the blink of an eye… because of costs. This creates the first truly beautiful scene of the movie as Lowell goes into his forests for what is to be the last time (I’ll put a YouTube link to the scene below for those who are interested). Its as moving and heartfelt as it is visually beautiful.

But Lowell’s conscience ultimately proves to be unable to let the last forest, the final touch of nature left in the universe, be destroyed by man’s greed. So he takes drastic action…

That’s all I can say about the plot without major spoilers so I’m going to move on to talking about why the film is so good starting with the above scene. This scene is beautiful for a number of reasons, part of which is because of the soundtrack. The music plays in total isolation aligning us with the thoughts and feelings of Lowell’s character, so overcome with sadness and guilt that there are no words to express his sorrow. But it also emphasises his loneliness. Aside from the animals and plants he has no friends or family in the world so for Lowell this detonation is effectively about to kill everything he has ever loved and spent the last 8 years working  day in day out to protect. He is about to become totally alone. This is a level of character empathy that most films don’t accomplish in their entire run time, let alone the first 20 minutes and is in my eyes one of the most beautiful scenes ever on film. The cinematography is well utilised as well, framing Lowell to make him look small and surrounded by forest. This shows the protection and comfort that Lowell feels when he’s in the forest and makes the scene even more heartbreaking.

This scene alone grants this film the 10/10 I’ve given but the best thing is there are plenty more scenes just like it trickled throughout the film and its magical every time.

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Lowell’s uncaring crew mates

But there’s so much more in this film that’s amazingly done! Bruce Dern’s acting throughout is Oscar worthy, realistically portraying the levels of emotion Lowell would really feel, both in scenes of complete despair and scenes of fearful anger. There’s a scene early on where Lowell’s crew-mates ask why he cares so much about the plants and Lowell explodes in a fit of rage that is amazingly involving to watch. Lowell’s points come across as hard hitting and true and makes the audience reflect on their own interactions with nature. We really feel Lowell’s pain which is something that none of his crew-mates do, and its so emotionally tough its almost painful to watch but at the same time its extraordinary. There are also moments later in the film that dwell on Lowell’s feelings of unbearable guilt at his past actions and Bruce Dern’s performance remains so believable that the audience cant help but feel for Lowell. The character and his portrayal is just so well developed making for an amazingly three dimensional character and an amazing performance.

The special effects were presumably spectacular at the time (rightly so with 2001: A Space Odyssey visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull as director) but will look dated for a modern audience. However, this doesn’t detract from the movie at all because the special effects are of course not the crux  of the movie at all. This just isn’t that kind of movie unlike films like Gravity or Interstellar. This is more of a drama that just happens to be set in space with character struggle and development being the major draw of the movie, and it really does excel in these areas.

The Music is also noteworthy. At first while watching I thought to myself “I’m not sure i really like the music in this film, it’s a bit melancholic” but then about halfway I thought “Oh my god that’s the point!” because I realised how well it reflected the mood of the film and basically surmises Lowell’s feelings. The melancholy effect reflects the deep sadness Lowell and the audience feels at nearly all natural life being destroyed and the realisation that we helped cause it. It seems obvious now but at the beginning i just didn’t see it. By the end of the film (Which is particularly sad but I don’t want to spoil anything so just watch it!) the full effect of the music is really felt and it can bring a grown man to tears easily. In my opinion that’s a sign of both a good film and good music.

The only other friends Lowell has aboard the Valley Forge are three little robot drones who he affectionately names Huey, Dewey and Lewey. These robots do not speak however they are brilliantly made into almost human characters through their interactions with one and another and become a great supporting cast. They even appear to have genuine feelings at times making them very interesting supporting characters to Bruce Dern’s Lowell. They eventually become very lovable sidekicks to Lowell and his only real friends.

The only things that let the film down at all is its relatively weak story after the first 30 mins and the occasional glaring plot hole which I cant talk about too much without ruining the second half of the film so I wont. I don’t believe it significantly deducts from the films power however and that’s the important thing. When this is the only flaw you can pick in a film you just know that it deserves to be hailed as a great film, especially one that makes you feel as much as this film does.

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Lowell teaches Huey and Dewey how to look after the forest

Freeman Lowell: [gesturing toward a picture] Look on the wall behind you. Look at that little girl’s face. I know you’ve seen it. But you know what she’s never going to be able to see? She’s never going to be able to see the simple wonder of a leaf in her hand. Because there’s not going to be any trees. Now you think about that.

Final Words:

The message of the film is probably more important today as it was then. With so much of the world focused on wealth, profits and business we often forget the simple beauty of the world around us and that’s a very sad thing. But in any case, this film is simply beautiful and deserves to be called a masterpiece. As eye watering as it is important, Silent Running earns its 10/10.

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