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Worth A Look: 11.76%
Just Average: 35.29%
Pretty Crappy: 5.88%
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1 review, 11 user ratings

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Silent Running
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by Jay Seaver

"Douglas Trumbull, combining 70s edge with great effects."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: I don't wholly agree with those who would frame the 1970s as a golden age of cinema for mature adults tragically destroyed by the coming off the sci-fi blockbuster, although that's in part because I can't bring myself to hate big, broadly-entertaining movies. I do occasionally find myself wondering about an alternate history of the movies where there were more movies like "Silent Running" that combined 1970s edge with beautiful, meticulous special effects.

It follows Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), part of a four-person crew on a space cargo ship and the only one who has any interest in tending to the domes containing some of the last trees from a dead Earth. Certain that the company president will announce plans to return home and reestablish the forests, he is crushed when the announcement instead is to eject the domes and destroy them with nuclear bombs. Unable to convince his crew-mates (Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin & Jesse Vint) that this is a horrible idea, he takes matters into his own hands. He saves the yes, but is all alone aside from robot drones Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

Douglas Trumbull directs, the first of his only two features, but his impact is felt just as strongly (if not more so) in his other jobs, heading up the visual effects department and creating the surprisingly expressive done units. Even without considering the time and the pre-digital tools he's working with, the right world he creates is something amazing, distinctive while seldom looking like functionality was compromised in order to make things look cool. The inside of the ship has an intriguing contrast of vastness for cargo with right spaces for the crew that quietly demonstrates the corporation's priorities (and shows how it's probably a miracle that the not-obviously-profitable nature preserve lasted this long), and is decorated with the sort of product placement that lends an earnestly cynical air. The outside is a thing of beauty, detailed but not shiny and busy like a modern digital creation might be, and while the signature feature of the three domes may not be strictly accurate scientifically, they certainly make this ship something that viewers will remember.

(For all that the movie looks amazing, though, the Joan Baez songs on the soundtrack would date it pretty severely even if they weren't absurdly on-the nose.)

The script, meanwhile, comes from a trio of writers who would go on to other notable things (Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, and Steven Bochco), and it's a surprisingly dark thing. Not so much for the future it posits - even in 1972, lifeless Earths were not exactly a new concept, and its environmental themes reflect more of an aesthetic eye toward "conservation" than the more comprehensive concerns of modern climate science -but for how quickly it leaves the audience with a highly compromised, unstable protagonist. There is no attempt to create a clear hero, and as a result the moral ambiguity is often less intriguing than uncomfortable. And while they create a loose enough story that Trumbull and company have room to play, they aren't satisfied to come up with a few ideas and let that be enough; there's a satisfyingly solid structure.

Bruce Dern is the one who gets to play most of this material out on-screen, and while he may sometimes come across as going a little overboard - early on, it seems a fair question how this space hippy wound up a part of the regular crew - his tendency toward broad emptying fits the character more often than not. If nothing else, we believe he has been systematically ostracized our might be cracking up from loneliness and/or guilt. The rest of the (visibly) human cast does their straightforward job well enough, although they never become much more than simple, interchangeable antagonists. The real breakout stars, though are Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Non-uniform in design, they're just expressive and anthropomorphic enough to amuse and give the audience a break from Freeman but never so much so that the movie gets too cute that the darker themes get pushed too far away from the audience's mind.

A lot of science fiction films wouldn't go that direction these days; certainly not ones that look as amazing as <I>Silent Running</I>. It's a shame that for so long the trappings of this genre were often only used for empty spectacle, or that spectacle is presumed to be empty. The situation is better now than it has been for a while, but it's a shame more films didn't take cues from this one during the years in between.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=4971&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/26/14 00:48:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Boston SciFi Film Festival For more in the 2014 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/29/18 Bents Good Sci-fi, very good Dern...had pacing issues 3 stars
12/27/09 Dr.Lao The movie clubbed me so hard with its message I only just regained consciousness 2 stars
3/15/09 Will the ecologist didn't realize lack of sunshine would hurt plants? WTF. 3 stars
3/13/06 David avery The robots made the movie! 3 stars
4/17/05 Jeff Anderson A great sci-fi film, plain & simple with a superb Bruce Dern performance. THE 70'S RULE!!!! 5 stars
12/24/04 green gremlin a little bit dated, but still conveys a powerful message 4 stars
7/07/04 Lord Durvok 2 WHAT THE F*CK IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?? 5 stars
5/20/04 John quiet sci fi film with a sensational Bruce Dern - no agenda - just a theme and a good one 4 stars
9/01/02 y2mckay Interesting sci-fi with a tree-hugging hippie agenda. Joan Baez soundtrack makes ears hurt 3 stars
6/11/02 R.W. Welch Reasonably well crafted sci-fi opus but something of a yawner. 3 stars
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  10-Mar-1971 (G)
  DVD: 21-May-2002

  28-Sep-1972 (U)

  10-Mar-1971 (PG)

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