With the environment, and specifically, climate change being at the forefront of coverage in recent years, I’d heard about Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running, in relation to the eco-systems and setup within the 1972 film but hadn’t seen it until this new Arrow Video 4K UHD restoration and release. While the story isn’t solely regarding the environment, there’s little doubt the biosphere domes involved (and central themes) are a catalyst for everything else that occurs.
Set sometime in the near future, Silent Running stars Bruce Dern as Freeman Lowell – a passionate ecologist and botanist onboard a cargo spaceship that’s far from Earth because all plant life has become extinct. One of four crewman, Freeman manages the domes (think Eden Project) on the ship called Valley Forge, also adorned as an American Airlines Space Freighter, revealed by an early establishing shot that offers us an awareness of the ships scale and the fact we’re travelling in deep space.
Whilst there are eight similar ships in total, we concentrate on Freeman and his work colleagues, their day-to-activities and so forth. He’s cultivating his life systems impressively, with indoor forests, animal life, trees and birds all co-existing in these separate domes, hoping to eventually bring them back to Earth to help repopulate and rebirth the Planet. But, you see, this changes when the corporation who own the spaceships decide to end the experiment – suggesting it costs too much and isn’t achieving anything now they’ve mastered the art of living in space with creating synthetic foods and breathable air, so the team are ordered to blow up the biosphere domes and repatriate the rest of the ships for cargo.
Orders are initially followed but it’s not long before Freeman, a dedicated activist for wildlife and ‘real’ life, starts to make plans of his own. While his colleagues successfully destroy most of the domes, when it comes down to his favourite, he can’t let them do it and (this is all quite early on) ends up killing the others so he can ‘run off’ into space with the forests he has left. And thus the film takes an even darker turn into the blackness of space, but the actions don’t feel entirely leftfield as you’ve already been given a deeper understanding of what our character is trying to achieve, even if it’s not morally right.
The establishing scenes show Dern’s Freeman as a serious man, and his three co-workers as slightly dumb. While this element seems a little less plausible in an era when we know how space travel works (to a degree), the co-workers are dislikeable and so your compassion sits with Freeman. Like bullies in school yard, they drive over his veg and flower beds, mock him and generally act like idiots. On the flipside, he’s is clearly smarter, easily beating them at cards and displaying a much rounder perspective of how life works but in the frenzy of being given orders, it’s actually his animalistic nature and lust for (plant) life that he can’t control.
Upon achieving his initial goal of saving his forest, he begins to display character traits of a sociopath, lying to Head Office over what happened to their ship, and why one dome remains, but remaining calm and collected in the face of death. This moment of focused character study is where much of the story lies, with Freeman endeavouring to escape further into deep space with his prize, which he must keep alive, and all the while living with the PTSD of his actions.
Also on board the ship are three small drones, or droids as we’d probably know them now. But these aren’t dangerous beings with other intentions, they’re benevolent and gradually replace the three work colleagues as friends for Freeman. Noticing his own madness a little, and no doubt craving interaction, he re-programmes the drones to not only help fix him when he’s injured but consequentially gives them names and humanises them. From here, his relationship with him changes as well – and we see a few moments where they seem to be learning from their own reprogramming but there’s a question in the air: Are we now viewing them from his perspective? It’s possible that as his loneliness grows, and the consequence of his previous actions linger, that we see a new reality directly from his mind, but that question is never fully answered, and that’s actually okay.
Dern is intense and gives a fascinating and increasingly unsettling performance, even if things are displayed and musically scored as quite calm and offers us a performance that lingers with remorse and humanity, which is fuelled by his love for the Earth and what he tries to keep alive, so you do understand his actions, despite their gravitas. Director Trumbull was also the Special Effects Supervisor for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there’s little doubt you can feel the vibe of that visually (with a few dashes of Joan Baez that time-lock it) but also in the subtle atmosphere that’s created within the story of the environment, and Freeman’s psychological wellbeing.
I’d think that Silent Running offered a pretty high concept approach back in the early 70s, not disregarding the era for its openness but more so the futuristic ideals, and the deep respect it’s layered with for the environment around us. It’s also a somewhat terrifyingly reflective reality to the climate change-induced world we’re clearly heading into now. Director Trumbull made a curiously ahead of its time film here, with all the right messages (despite the death) and the eventual outcome and conclusion really make sense and fit the overall narrative to keep it ethical and morally balanced.
As with all Arrow Films releases, there’s an absolute wealth of extras and although the film is a 4K restoration – and looks great with no qualms from me at all, there’s plenty of archival ‘making of’ documentaries as well, including one 50 minutes long, and that also shows us the MGM backlot and delves into the changes of the industry of the time, and how people film, which was quite interesting and historic.
It also shows us how, for Silent Running, they used an old Aircraft Carrier and moulded it into spaceship, and all the work to make it look different – and on film it’s impressive. Director Turnbull is featured, and it reminds us of his special effects work on 2001: A Space Odyssey with Kubrick, which might be why the film looks so good within the restrictions of the era.
We get an insight on the human element of the film narrative, the actual double amputees in the drones, and so much more. I felt it was quite unusual to have such an extensive behind the scenes delve from films around that time, which might go to show how much of a film-makers journey this is, as well as just an insightful story.
There’s a really interesting discussion about Douglas Trumbull’s work in 70mm, and eventually IMAX (and I did have a sense of Christopher Nolan in this film), his involvement with the BTTF Ride and general progression in the industry. He says he always wanted to look forward with how films were made, and how to develop gaming, but at the time in 70s, everything was mainly 35mm and console gaming, and the like, to really create a sense of being immersed by a product wasn’t advanced enough to commit to.
I also enjoyed an interview and insight with Bruce Dern on his career at that point, where he was at in his life and how he was eventually signed up for Silent Running. He talks of his admiration for the director, but also of the entire cast and crew, and how they ran the film with utter kindness and humanity. And maybe that’s another example of why it holds up, the creativity and the unique atmosphere.
Silent Running 4K UHD is available now from Arrow Video: https://amzn.to/3ivCQ6Q
Full Special Features List:
• Brand new 4K restoration by Arrow Films from the original camera negative
• 4K (2160p) UHD Blu-ray presentation in Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible)
• Original lossless mono audio
• Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• Audio commentary by critics Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw
• Original audio commentary by Douglas Trumbull and actor Bruce Dern
• Isolated music and effects track
• No Turning Back – an interview with film music historian Jeff Bond on the film’s score
• First Run – a visual essay by writer and filmmaker Jon Spira exploring the evolution of Silent Running’s screenplay
• The Making of Silent Running – an archival 1972 on-set documentary
• Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull and Douglas Trumbull: Then and Now – two archival interviews with the film’s director
• A Conversation with Bruce Dern – an archival interview with the film’s lead actor
• Theatrical trailer
• Extensive behind-the-scenes gallery
• Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Arik Roper
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring writing on the film by Barry Forshaw and Peter Tonguette