Special-effects mastermind Douglas Trumbull has only directed two features in his long career, and they’re both fascinating. His first picture, Silent Running, is one of the most deeply felt statements within the small but noteworthy genre of ecology-themed sci-fi dramas, and his sophomore effort, Brainstorm (1983), is a problematic but provocative examination of what might happen if technology allowed us to experience other people’s thoughts. Obviously, the fact that both films are rooted in man’s complicated relationship with machines means that Trumbull didn’t stray far from his strong suit of special effects and technological themes—but there’s a lot to be said for any artist operating within the idiom he or she finds most comfortable.
Silent Running takes place entirely in space, specifically aboard the scientific vessel Valley Forge. The setting is a future date when plant life has disappeared from the surface of the Earth, so the Valley Forge tugs geodesic domes in which the planet’s last forests are lovingly maintained by botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern). Lowell has a tough time getting along with the other humans aboard the Valley Forge, partially because of his antisocial nature and partially because they don’t share his passion for preserving plant life. Instead, his main companions are three robots, whom he dubs Huey, Duey, and Louie (borrowing the names of Disney cartoon character Scrooge McDuck’s nephews). When the Valley Forge receives orders to destroy the geodesic domes (including their precious cargo) and then return to Earth—a decision’s been made that greenery isn’t worth sustaining anymore—Lowell takes extreme measures to protect as many of the plants as he can.
Some viewers might find this storyline bizarre, either because they can’t imagine anyone prioritizing plants over people or because the film’s conservation message is too overt, but the perfect casting of Dern in the lead role both accentuates and justifies the strange premise. On the most obvious level, Dern built his career playing unstable characters, so it’s not hard to accept his drift into idiosyncratic behavior. And yet on a deeper level, Dern’s intensity underscores Freeman Lowell’s self-perception as a reluctant savior—he sees the prevention of plant extinction as a higher calling. This aspect of the film pays off wonderfully in the finale, which has a strong emotional hit that’s grounded in the offbeat colorations of Dern’s exceptional performance. And though the most memorable quality of Silent Running is the humane nature of Dern’s acting—ironic, given Trumbull’s background and directorial inexperience—the special effects don’t disappoint. Using some of the same technology he brought to bear on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Trumbull creates outer-space environments with genuine dimension, all the while ensuring that visual gimmicks never overwhelm the offbeat story.
Silent Running: RIGHT ON