Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Silent Running

As I graded papers last night, a science fiction classic played in the background.

It was Silent Running. I had never seen it before and despite the obvious distractions with my work, I found it to be a compelling film. Somber, heavy, and really quite melancholy at times, but still compelling.

"In world where" all plant life is extinct on Earth, Bruce Dern plays Freeman Lowell, a botantist stationed aboard the space freighter Valley Forge. The spaceship has enormous geodesic domes where Lowell has spent eight years preserving what plant specimens remain from home. "The forest," he calls it. To call him passionate about the plants would be an understatement. He sees the preservation of this life as the noblest of acts, even if others see no value you in it and call him an idealist dreamer. This prompts a "what's wrong with dreams" rant from Lowell on par with Don Quixote. As you might have guessed, Lowell is rather Lorax-like and is ultimately quite mad.

That's a problem when he gets bad news from the corporate owners of the Valley Forge and its sister ships. Funding for the project has been terminated and everyone is to come home. Before doing so, they are to destroy the all the domes...and all of the plant life within them. Lowell sees only one logical course of action open to him: mutiny.

He takes over the freighter and sets it on a collision course with the rings of Saturn. During what time he has left, he tends to his trees and gardens with the help of his robot companions, Huey and Dewey. No, that's not the end of the film exactly, so save your cries of "spoilers!"

Made in 1972, Silent Running is a very 1970s film. I mean very. Environmentalism is an obvious theme and there's even a hippie dippy Joan Baez song to underscore the point. That aside, the message is still a pertinent one. All these years later and we're still tussling with exact same issues. The story prompts questions and forces the viewer to think. That's when science fiction is at its best as opposed to the braindead, splodey shoot 'em ups gobbled by Sad Puppies and my dear friend whose Latin motto must be a translation of "I'll watch anything." A work of art like this could never be made today in the Hollywood system.

In terms of acting, directing, and production, there is so much to like here. Bruce Dern practically carries the entire show himself through his performance. It might come off as a bit forced to a contemporary audience, but I enjoyed seeing the expressions on his face when he would argue with his fellow crew, perfectly portraying a mind locked in frustration and alexithymia when confronting smaller, money-driven minds. The film is directed by Douglas Trumbull, long known for his special effects work on such landmark science fiction films as 2001, Blade Runner, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Though this is my first time seeing Silent Running, I've always admired the design of the Valley Forge. The massive geodesic domes growing food and foliage beneath them are concept many have adopted in their work. They also have a chance of actually working in reality. I've also read that the design of the robots was later aped somewhat for R2-D2 in Star Wars.

The upshot? It's slow, talky, and thinky. Just my kind of film.

"Earth's last battle will be fought in space."

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