19 November 2011

SILENT RUNNING (Dir. Douglas Trumbull, 1972, US)

Following the unexpected commercial success of Kubrick’s mind trip of a science fiction film, visual effects wiz Douglas Trumbull, who had been central to the special effects achievements of 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed his own take on the science fiction genre with the ingenious and under stated film Silent Running in 1972. Long available on DVD, the Masters of Cinema DVD label has given the film a much anticipated Blu-ray treatment including a gloriously new pristine transfer with suitably appealing extras. At first Douglas Trumbull did not envision directing the film. With a budget set at one million dollars, many directors were reluctant to take on a screenplay loaded with ideological sentiment, and so it eventually fell upon Trumbull to take on the role of director. The film was shot on a disused aircraft carrier, which was due for the scrap heap, and the production team converted the claustrophobic interiors into the spaceship Valley Forge. Having worked with Kubrick, Trumbull felt that science fiction cinema and space in particular was a lonely place but this didn’t necessarily mean humans had to be emotionless. Trumbull approached Silent Running from both an ideological and emotional point of view that echoed the growing concern in society towards the erosion of the environment. The narrative focuses on the character of Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), a hippie care taker and staunch environmentalist, who has been assigned the task of cultivating plant life which are housed in large domes. Set in the future in which all plant life on Earth has become extinct, the spaceship Valley Forge is an experiment initiated by the government to try and preserve the last remnants of plant life. However, given the cost involved of such an environmental experiment, the company and effectively the establishment decide to terminate the project. Incensed, Lowell kills his crew mates and with the help of the droids, he takes control of the ship. Trumbull mixes science fiction conventions with melodrama to create a genuinely moving plea for the preservation of the environment. Silent Running is a film that makes no cryptic or ambiguous existential statements or ruminations on the human condition, but by being so transparent in its message, the film’s honesty doesn’t feel contrived or pretentious. Trumbull doesn’t just want us to see the cost of our self destruction but feel it too through the time he devotes to the relationship between Lowell and the forest. Everything is spot on including the songs by Joan Baez, which haven’t dated in the slightest given the prescient lyrics, and the terrific performance by the sorely overlooked Bruce Dern. Masters of Cinema have to be commended on bringing Silent Running to Blu-ray because it is a science fiction that continues to grow in stature but unfortunately is still eclipsed by other generally over rated science fiction films. It's of little surprise that two of the best recent science fiction films, Moon and Wall E, have both been influenced by the film’s retro dystopian aesthetics and humane representation of robots, singling out Silent Running as an obvious classic of the genre.

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