Space Week #1 – Silent Running isn’t silent about its message

silent4Silent Running (1972) is a melodramatic environmentalist movie, but has been a big influence on the science fiction genre.  The story is about a man who chooses to ignore orders from a futuristic Earth government and protect his greenhouse of space plants.  Bruce Dern plays Freeman, a man with the most metaphorical name ever.  He is an idealist and wrestles with many of his decisions.  I think he puts on a good performance and hammers home the themes of this movie, over and over.  Tree-huggers unite.

This movie is a living, science-fiction editorial.  The first shots are close-ups of flowers for God’s sake.  The movie spends a lot of time showing Freeman in his communion with nature.  Space nature, that is.  He waters his plants like an old lady and lets a hawk land on his arm when he visits his favorite garden.  When the hawk flies away, he lowers his arm and looks depressed.  He is pretty lonely.

silent5His only pals are his three drones, Hewey, Louie, and Dewey, named after Donald Duck’s cousins.  The drones are played by real humans and the characters are well-done.  I like these characters and they are endearing, as much as the human character.  Other effects are also pretty good.

The exterior ships and shots inside the ship are especially good.  The special effects are practically done and Freeman’s ship is a large model, which was kept in storage by Bruce Dern for a time.  Many shots of the freighter should be familiar if you’re a fan of Battlestar Gallactica, as shots from this movie were used as stock footage on the TV show.  The director, Douglas Trumbull, knows how to make an epic space movie work.  His previous work was on 2001: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick.

The movie beats you over the head with its message until you’re left wondering why these guys won’t just lighten up.  Besides endless close-ups and shots of plants, we get evil governments and Joan Baez sings.  She tells us “…to harvest and rejoice in the sun”.  The soundtrack is very dated.  

I agree with the critics who say that this movie is pretty simple-minded.  It needs to go a little deeper.  It is not a parable and has no allegory, which is why it was pretty boring to me.  There are no deep symbols I can think of, except Freeman’s name.  The characters are good though, especially the robots.  Those robots are awesome.  They waddle around and play cards with Freeman.  They are not your generic robots and are not stereotypes.  

All in all, this movie is alright, but the singing gets on my nerves and the themes are a little bit too heavy for me.  Bruce Dern has a lot of dialogue, but he takes everything so seriously.  Maybe he’s an environmentalist.  The environmentalist message became more common in the 70s, and this movie fits its time period very well.  A serious, serious message is not something you find in every movie, but even George Romero can have a little joke or two on the side.  Overall, the movie is big time contemplative and will make a hippy out of you.

Freeman Lowell: It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth… and there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in – you could go to sleep in. And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air… and there were things growing all over the place, not just in some domed enclosures blasted some millions of miles out in to space.