Silent Running (1972)
Silent Running (1972)

Genre: Sci-Fi Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 29 min.

Release Date: March 10th, 1972 MPAA Rating: G

Director: Douglas Trumbull Actors: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint




riestly loner Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is the last enthusiastic preservationist alive, residing on the American Airlines space freighter Valley Forge, one of a fleet of three starships that contains the only remaining forests of Earth. The uprooted and relocated coppices are kept alive in massive domes, floating millions of miles above the atmosphere (oddly, somewhere near Saturn). Lowell’s three other crewmembers are thrilled to receive a long-awaited transmission: due to cutbacks and lack of interest, the vegetation is no longer necessary and nuclear destruction is required. They’ll all get to return home. Having put in eight years of dedicated work on the station, Freeman is horrified, realizing that after this strategic annihilation, Earth will never again see heavily forested areas. Due to scientific and economic advances, they’re no longer useful on the planet.

When employee John (Cliff Potts) attempts to follow orders and plant explosives in the specific grove Lowell tends to, the defensive arboriculturist goes berserk and attacks, but not without sustaining a serious leg injury. Lowell then proceeds to sabotage the mission, reporting technical malfunctions with the procedure (naturally, a problem with the main coupling) and disposing of his fellow shipmates. He’s determined to save the forest by staging an explosion and moving the ship further away from his superiors. But in doing so, he’ll be left entirely alone, save for three miniature maintenance robots.

The story is a classic science-fiction scenario, with post-apocalyptic homeworld circumstances, drastic technological advances, desperation, and an eerily lonesome, immense mechanical setting. As one of the last entries in the genre before 1979’s “Alien” would reinvigorate audiences’ thirst for horror, “Silent Running’s” plot doesn’t contain exploration, invasion, warfare, rogue rampaging androids, or tentacled extraterrestrials. Instead, it offers up a thought-provoking environmental moral as it ponders the murderous lengths a man will go to preserve nature.

The examination of the human condition is also potent, chiefly through Freeman’s isolation and regret as he contends with a lack of companionship. He names the two drones (Huey and Dewey), reprograms them to spend time helping him care for the forest (so he can also teach them to garden, as if they were children), and even forces them to play cards. But all the while, he grapples with the guilt from the decisions that left him solo. The most interesting aspects of the picture come from Freeman’s moving interactions with the speechless, bumbling automatons.

With essentially only one actor and a couple of rigidly hobbling boxes (bilateral amputees in bulky suits, devoid of human facial characteristics – a recognizable precursor to “Star Wars’” R2-D2) abandoned aboard a spaceship, “Silent Running” must depend on very little to deliver a message, visual intrigue, and entertainment value. Lowell is a sympathetic character despite his seeming insanity, and Dern’s performance is never over-the-top, providing just the right amount of believable eccentricity. Throwing the film off its track, however, are a few distracting and blatantly tree-hugging songs sung by Joan Baez that play during montages as Freeman contemplates his choices, and a plot hole or two, including the fact that the robot presence makes it unnecessary for the humans to be there in the first place. Many will also find “Silent Running” to be a little too slow or dull with the obvious absence of unrelenting action. But its simplicity and unique approach to the subject matter undeniably makes it a sci-fi spectacle in a class of its own.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10