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Category:    Home > Reviews > Science Fiction > Silent Running (Universal DVD)

Silent Running


Picture: B     Sound: C     Extras: B     Film: A



Douglas Trumbull did not quite make the transition from Special Visual Effects wizard to director he hoped for, but it was not for lack of ambition.  After establishing himself as one of four operators doing such work on Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), his clout finally got Silent Running made.  Released in 1972, the film was made under circumstances that were thanks both to the commercial success of Easy Rider (1969), but also akin to what United Artists used to do and the way Kubrick was used to making his films: Trumbull was left alone to create and shoot the film his way with minimal studio interference, so much so did Universal hope he could pull off a great film.


Though it is not always thought of as such, Trumbull managed to create a picture that turned out to be both influential and ahead of its time.  One reason is the smart, thoughtful screenplay by Derec Washington, soon-to-be-great maverick director Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter) and Steven Bochco (who went on to create TV classics like Hill Street Blues among others and was the story editor on the great, early Columbo telefilms at Universal) that has the vision of a 2001, Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky’s Original 1972 version), Alien (1979) or Blade Runner (1982).


Bruce Dern, displaying his uncanny ability for quiet power, is Freeman Lowell, one of the four human crew members of massive Valley Forge space vessel that contains what is left of all the plant and animal life on earth.  After several plasticoatings of the earth after nuclear conflict and all other manner of pollution, the hope is that the planet can be cleansed of the radiation and filth enough so that nature itself can be reintroduced to the planet as if nothing had ever happened.


Along with this Noah’s Ark and fellow crewmen Barker (the enduring character actor Ron Rifkin) Wolf (Cliff Potts) and Keenan (Jessie Vint) there are the three robots dubbed Huey, Dewey and Louie, after the Walt Disney nephews of Donald Duck.  Forerunners of R2D2 in George Lucas’ Star Wars films and BOB and VINcent in Disney’s The Black Hole (1979), Steven Brown, Mark Persons, Cheryl Sparks and Larry Whisenhunt were the actual people who embodied the still-realistic robot drone shells.  They were all bilateral amputees, which seemed to resonate with the goings-on in Vietnam as far as the condition of how some U.S. soldiers were coming back, though you cannot see them on screen this way.  Rewatching the film for the first time in a few years, it occurred to me that Trumbull succeeded where Steven Spielberg recently fell short on with his A.I. – Artificial Intelligence (2001) in the portrayal of a human-like robot (Haley Joel Osment) and the people around him.  Silent Running has the child-like Freeman with drones that are also that smart, but no illicit appeal to the emotions is sought from the audience when it comes to these robots.  A.I. cannot make up its mind on whether Osment’s robot is to be loved or not, but suggests it to death throughout the film, while Trumbull offers an even more unusual-yet-realistic situation and leaves it up to the audience to decide.  This may seem downright “demented” to those too accustomed to the Lucas/Spielberg cannon of fantasy “feel-good” films, but when you add how gutted-out and careless the human crew is, Trumbull lets the audience figure this out in what he seems to have hoped would be a challenge in repeat viewings.  When viewed with the proper attention span, Silent Running offers some of the most touching moments in Science Fiction history, especially impressive since they are not forced or over-sentimentalized.


Echoes of Vietnam would be a hallmark of Cimino’s later writing/directing work, with an ironic ad placement by napalm producer Dow Chemical, who helped make certain set props (the hexagonal cubes, et al) possible.  The environmental concerns were once regarded as a passing fad, went away somewhat but are now back.  That is an aspect of the film that has appreciated very well and something no other Science Fiction film has ever done better.  None of them ever went this far to make the points it needed to make about the greed and carelessness it would take to create the nightmarish circumstances in this film.


This film was produced in an era from the mid 1960s to the mid-1970s when Science Fiction was in its last great Golden Age, much like Hollywood films of the time overall.  What was budding and building-up in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) and Francois Truffaut’s grossly underrated adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966, now on yet another exceptional DVD special edition from Universal Home Video that everyone should pick up with this DVD) exploded in Kubrick’s 2001 and all the studios raced in with ambitious projects they would never have greenlighted otherwise to come up with a film to capitalize on this.


Unfortunately, the visual effects Trumbull and his peers would perfect and innovate would lead to effects-based movies with often nothing to say, led by the entertaining Logan’s Run (1976) and first (and still best) 1977 Star Wars.


With such visual effects rare and still truly special, these films had to have exceptionally smart screenplays and the effects followed.  The idea is not just to decorate the film with a “future look,” but also to show a functional and probable future where the events portrayed are very possible.  That is why most of the science fiction films of the period are not space operas or fantasy films.  This is the primary reason that so many of these films hold up as well as they do today, even when they have dated a little or are not entirely successful.


The anamorphically-enhanced 1.85 X 1 picture is from a near-excellent print that gives us a decent approximation of how great this film looks.  The print has some brief artifacts here and there, but it is very color-consistent, though some softness is present.  The film was produced in the final years Technicolor was doing dye-transfer printing on films like Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Godfather (1972), Chinatown and finally on Godfather 2 (both 1974) and these prints were incredible.  Cinematographer Charles F. Wheeler, A.S.C., began shooting cells for Disney back in the late 1930s and explains on the vintage documentary how long it took him to become a cameraman.  Trumbull’s father Don, who operated the Flying Monkey’s and an attacking tree in the original Wizard Of Oz (1939), adds further technological experience that helps explain how this film somehow got made for just over $1,000,000 in 1971 money!


I was struck by how this transfer makes the model work look more realistic and also noticed how certain shots look more solid and striking than in the past widescreen LaserDisc and basic DVD incarnation.  The film’s space ship The Valley Forge was literally set in the decommissioned Naval vessel of the same name, which was turned into a mini-studio where most of the film was made.  This included the space where the highly-detailed models were made.  The models and live-action are remarkably matched for a 1972 film.  Trumbull believed space would not have ships as antiseptic and clean as those he designed for 2001, so he created a look that was a little worn-out, lived-in and dirty.  The ship is not with the jumbled chaos of “electronic ganglia” seen at the same time in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but it was a major forerunner of the post-modern look Ridley Scott introduced in his classics: Alien and Blade Runner.  Trumbull did the effects on the latter film.


This film was also issued in 70mm blow-up prints to show-off the visual effects work and this included a six-track magnetic stereo soundtrack in Rank Film’s British release.  Here, you get Dolby 2-track Mono that sounds about as good as a mono mix-down from the era could.  With the sixteen-track magnetic reel-to-reel music master, that 70mm sound, even if five of the six channels were restricted to the screen in those older configurations (not 5.1 existed yet) could have sounded great.  Maybe a future theatrical re-issue could feature remastered DTS and Dolby 5.1 sound if Trumbull wanted that, as it seems he loved 70mm as much as this writer does.


The score by Peter Schikele (a.k.a. P.D.Q. Bach, his persona as a sort of “Weird Al” Yankovic of Classical Music) remains impressive and holds up very well.  The Joan Baez songs may date the film in some respects, yet seem oddly appropriate in context to the narrative.  It would have been nice to hear at least the music in stereo (at least an isolated music tracks perhaps?), but the music never intrudes or distracts from the story and that is why it is ultimately so successful.


This is one of the most loaded single DVDs Universal has issued to date and includes materials that are making their debut here and all of which are making their home video debut, except the original theatrical trailer and the nearly-hour long “Making Of Silent Running” that tied into the film’s original theatrical release.  You also get brand new extras especially produced with this DVD in mind including a too-short five-minutes-long on-camera reflection by Trumbull, a ten-minutes-long one by Dern, an outstanding alternate audio commentary by Trumbull and Dern and a longer program on Trumbull’s work and life.  This excellent set of extras adds up to one of the best single-DVD special editions I have ever seen, yet typical of Universal Home Video when they get ambitious.  This is often.


It is amazing how much Silent Running continues to appreciate in value with age.  It is even better now than when I last looked at it from the double-feature LaserDisc set that also included the incredible Science Fiction thriller Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970, which deserves a DVD this strong).  The environment is an issue that will not go away, especially with recent events, but the story-telling, smart script and performances place this film far beyond the pro-environmental stance it takes.


The title is a reference to a submarine trying to hide underwater and not be detected, which fits what Lowell will have to do to save what he cherishes and protect what he believes in.  The film also deals with a theme in Trumbull’s work that reoccurs in Brainstorm (1983) and even his specialty productions like the Back To The Future – The Ride attraction: the placement of personal, natural and meditative experiences in an increasingly technologized world.  If The Ride offers the viewer the actual trip and Brainstorm offers a tale of the dangers of dismembering individual experiences into electronic medium in a film that foreran the idea of cyberspace by at least a decade, then Silent Running offers us the nightmare possibility of never being able to fully have those experiences and what one man is willing to do to save that.


Many people have referred to this film as a Cult Classic, but that often means a work is a failed piece, which Silent Running absolutely is not.  There are even political reasons some try to marginalize this film.  Freeman Lowell is one of the cinema’s great Existentialist heroes and as its ideas continue to rapidly increase in relevance, the film may finally be recognized for the all-time classic it is.  This DVD is a must-have for any serious collection and will hopefully re-establish the film in its rightful place, once and for all.



- Nicholas Sheffo


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