The Bottom Line
In the not-so-distant future, Earth has relegated its flora to a few commercial spaceships drifting around the solar system. When the ships are informed they must destroy the remaining agriculture, one man (Bruce Dern) fights back and begins a strange and lonely journey through space.
The Rest of the Story
Freeman Lowell (Dern) is a plant lover. As part of the four man crew on the Valley Forge, he is the only one who shows any love or respect for what he calls "nature's greatest gift." The rest of the crew feel they've been taken away from their main duty - hauling goods across the solar system for fun and profit - and are rewarded by an announcement that the save the plants project has been abandoned, and they'll be going home shortly.
Lowell, of course, has other ideas, and after a brief fight and a quick sacrifice of one of the two remaining plant domes, he is the last man standing onboard. Thinking quickly, he radios to the commanding officer that an accident has occurred and he can no longer navigate. He's then told he's on a straight path for the ring of Saturn - and the ship won't survive the trip.
Working with three surprisingly humane maintenance robots onboard (which he renames Huey, Dewey, and Louie) Lowell does survive the trip through Saturn's ring. But soon the last garden in the world begins to die, and he can't figure out why. Will he save the garden in time? And at what cost?
Well, if you were looking for subtle, this ain't it.
29 year old Douglas Trumbull had just had his big success with the visual effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and he decided to use his clout to direct a message film based on his personal conviction that America and the world was on the path toward environmental destruction of an epic scale. With that came Silent Running, an eager-beaver picture that ironically shines most when its as far away from its thematic content as possible.
First, the good. Bruce Dern? This is his finest role, capturing his wild-eyed leftfield demeanor and his melancholy sensitivity in every moment (a case could be made for King of Madison Gardens. I digress.) Particularly charming are his interactions with and concern for the drones (a major inspiration for R2-D2, they were actually double amputees in robot suits!), whom he treats as nothing less than co-workers. The miniatures and sets are fantastically detailed and vivid, as are the visual effects of the trip through Saturn's ring. And the Technicolor cinematography is beautiful and reminded both my wife and I of what a good color reference can do for a film.
The bad? Well, the script's not so hot, despite work by future Oscar-nominees Deric Washburn and Michael Cimino, and legendary TV producer Steven Bochco (then just a "Columbo" scribe). The pacing is pretty soft, and the movie lulls (de rigeur when it was released at the height of Hollywood lullery, 1972.) It has its moments, but the hokey 70s "give a hoot" environmentalism is shrill.
Speaking of shrill (and the ugly), what the hell is Joan Baez folk doing in a space film? And overmixed to boot! It was so jarring that when her first number comes on (15 minutes in or so), we joked that you could end the movie there and call it a poignant short story. But on a bigger level, this is just the epitome of the film's chief flaw: making a film set in the distant future, but using it to bludgeon its contemporary audience - with the chief effect being dating the film and leaving it open fodder for detractors to dismiss it out of hand.
I think, ultimately for me, I can ignore this. It's got a great one-man play mentality, the sets and technics are pretty great, and the movie plot itself is straightforward and moving. But if you've seen one too many late 70s after-school specials with the wispy flute solos and wide-angle greenery, this might just rub you the wrong way. Still, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
My Rating: 8 out of 10. This comes out of a lot of bias - towards sci-fi, towards the Lonely Man, towards the early 70s aesthetic - but the film is a treat for any fan of a good space story. There's certainly a little grating nature to the film's environmentalist attitude (and my god, someone needs to re-release this without the Baez), but all in all it's a very watchable and memorable film.
Bruce Dern ... Freeman Lowell
Cliff Potts... John Keenan
Ron Rifkin ... Marty Barker
Jesse Vint ... Andy Wolf