This week, Kreg Steppe takes a look at one his favorite genre movies, Silent Running.
Do you have one of those moments in time, as a kid, where in that moment all was right with the world? I do. In fact I have a few of them. Boiling them down I would say that the majority of them involved spending the night at another kids house, staying awake way too late talking, and possibly watching TV shows that you were not supposed to watch (read HBO).
1979: I was staying at my friend Brad Shelton’s house and I remember we had been checking out his copy of Popular Science, Starlog, or something of the sort and doing various other kid things that evening. As it was starting to get late, we pretended to go to sleep to fake out his parents. This was the only way to get parents out of our hair by allowing them to think it was okay for them to go to bed as well. With his parents in bed and out of the way, it was probably pushing 11pm to midnight which was still early for us, Brad suggested we watch TV because he knew this movie was coming on called Silent Running.
Once he gave me his description of the movie I was down with it. He had me at “Space”. Back then I was looking for anything to supplement my science fiction itch. Star Wars still fresh in my mind and I had to take something since there was no Star Trek at the time and the only other Sci-fi we had was the original Battlestar Galactica (I liked it too, just sayin’).
In the film we are told that Earth has gotten to a point where all plant life was going extinct. In an effort to save what plant life was left, eight ships were outfitted with Green House domes with Forrest Preserves including a variety of plant and animal life that remained. The overall plan is to eventually bring them back to Earth where they would be used for the reforestation of the planet.
Bruce Dern stars as a botanist and ecologist named Freeman Lowell. He spends a lot of time working the domes and taking care of the animals and plant life much to the bewilderment and amusement of his crew. They are often mocking him as they don’t see the point of saving it all now that much of what they are saving can now be produced synthetically, and he doesn’t see the point of creating things synthetically when you can have the satisfaction of growing something with your own two hands.
The eight ships are stationed somewhere near Saturn and are awaiting news on how long they will be out there. Eventually they get the orders that they are to abandon the project by jettisoning the domes and destroy them with nuclear charges. Once complete the ships will return to service as “Space Freighters”. The crew is very happy to be receiving the new orders and of course Lowell and his abrasion with the rest of the crew come to a head as he rebels and tries to save what he can after several of the Domes were released and destroyed.
Lowell eventually gains control of the ship, after dispatching his crew, and heads out to deep space. He spends a good amount of time alone and in his spare time he teaches 3 of the maintenance drones on the ship to be a little more human like and do various things like playing poker and performing surgery on his injured leg. (Hey…he is a good programmer) The Drones were cute and likable in an R2-D2 sort of way, at least enough to get you attached to them just as our main character does.
As he is spending so much time on his own in deep space, he starts to notice that the Dome he ended up saving is starting to die. He realizes that the reason is, there is no light. So he really didn’t save it at all. Being a botanist, you’d think that he would have picked up on that a little quicker. Loading up the Dome with artificial lights he releases it to drift into space as he destroys himself and his ship to throw off the scent of those searching for him.
When we originally watched it I obviously didn’t catch all the themes but today, I can clearly see that this movie plays out as an environmentally-themed science fiction film. It touches on some environmental issues that we still have today not to mention the plot point of destroying the Forrest reserves with Nuclear charges. That just hits on two hot buttons in one.
I do like the personal conflict that Dern’s character is placed in: his orders versus his conviction. It wasn’t so much a hard decision for our eco friendly character as it was a decision that he would have to take a violent stand against his crew mates. However, It does come off a little preachy with regards to the issues at hand and there are times in the film where the story drags, it is not an action flick by any means and this is probably why I like it. It was the first Sci-fi film I saw that didn’t have blasters and space battles, but told a story.
Should you see it? I think so. It was also the influence for several other works according to Wikipedia. The show “The Starlost” expanded on the botanical Dome theme, Joel Hodgson said that it was the inspiration for Mystery Science Theater 3000, and was an inspiration for Red Dwarf (the British Science fiction comedy). You can even see stock footage of the ships in this movie re-purposed in the original Battlestar Galactica as ships in the fleet.
Personally I like the film, and as with a lot of things it’s more meaningful in the moment of context. For me it’s the context of seeing the glow from the television on two kids faces as we sat in the dark watching this movie late into a non-school night.
Kreg Steppe is the co-host of Technorma, and an amateur photographer. To find out more about the show or subscribe, visit the Technorma home page, or to find out more about his photography visit Spyndle.com