Universal // 1971 // 89 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // May 30th, 2002
Earth's last battle will be fought in space
In a world inundated with shallow, special effects driven blockbusters, the true power of filmmaking is rediscovered in this 30-year-old, low budget science fiction classic. While the set decorations may look like something from an episode of Space 1999 or the old Lost In Space TV series, the film's message is timeless and its impact profound.
In the future, the Earth's ecosystem has been devastated. The only remaining vegetation has been placed within a group of geodesic domes, each housing a different environment (Desert, Pine Forest, Tropical Rain Forest, Urban Ghetto, et cetera) and launched into space on cargo ships. Botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) and the small crew of the USS Valley Forge (Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint, Cliff Potts) have been tasked with cultivating and nurturing the contents of the domes until the Earth is ready for reforestation. In the meantime, life on board the love boat has become a trifle boring. Most of the crew spends their days living out childhood summers in the Wisconsin Dells -- drinking, playing cards, shooting pool, and chasing each other around in go-karts -- all except for Lowell. He is the Earth father, tending to the gardens, caring for the wildlife (yes -- actual cameos by ducks, bunnies, squirrels, turtles, and birds), and otherwise communing with nature. It is his fervent belief their recall to Earth is coming soon and he will be tapped to lead the environmental rebirth. Turns out he was right about one thing -- the call has come, but the project has been scrapped. Orders are to destroy the domes and return home. When you are a peaceful, loving environmentalist, told to destroy the one thing you are sworn to protect, how far will you go to prevent those orders from being carried out?
The year is 1970. Twenty-nine year old whiz kid, Douglas Trumbull, is fresh off a career high as special effects supervisor for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and looking to spread his wings. Hollywood, energized by the critical and financial success of the independent film Easy Rider, is salivating over the prospect of increasing profit margins by cranking out a slew of low budget, creator driven films. Universal is first out of the blocks with a five picture development deal -- Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie, Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand, Milos Forman's Taking Off, George Lucas' American Graffiti, and Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running. The studio provides each filmmaker with a $1 million budget and keeps their hands out of the creative process in the hopes of catching lighting in a bottle.
Silent Running was a concept created by Trumbull and fleshed out by newcomers Deric Washburn (The Deer Hunter), Mike Cimino (The Deer Hunter), and Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, LA Law, NYPD Blue). It was shot in 32 days aboard a decommissioned aircraft carrier (USS Valley Forge) and inside an airplane hangar. At the time, the science fiction genre and Hollywood were not on the best of terms. Cheesy television series and giant radioactive bug movies had worn thin and few studios were willing to sink any money into these projects. However, Trumbull's story was less technology and more human interest. Described as a tale of a man and his three dogs lost in the Sierra Mountains, Silent Running focuses on the beliefs and ideals of the lone protector Lowell, his actions, their consequences, and his relationship with three companions -- drone robots Huey, Duey, and Louie.
The film itself is captivating. Slow at times but never boring, the audience is drawn into and emotionally invested in the lives of these characters. Dern does an admirable job in his first leading role. Enhanced by the music of Peter Schickele (AKA PDQ Bach) and the vocals of legendary folk singer Joan Baez, Silent Running has a unique feel and an even more profound impact.
Having watched this film less than 24 hours before seeing Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, I was struck by how much I was affected by Trumbull's story and how little I felt for the characters in Lucas' latest installment. Now comes the irony of this comparison. Trumbull, his father Don (special effects genius on The Wizard of Oz), and friend John Dykstra developed cutting edge technology for the limited but impressive special effects used on Silent Running, most done in-camera. A short time after completing work on this film, Trumbull Sr. and Dykstra went over to help George Lucas create the effects technology for his next project, a sci-fi adventure called Star Wars. But I digress.
As for the technical aspects of the DVD, the transfer is magnificent. You will see the difference between this and the original print when watching the supplemental documentary. The colors are sharp, despite the muted palette of the late '60s and early '70s. The picture is crisp and clean without a hint of edge enhancement or artifacting. The film's grand scope is felt in this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. While the sound is only mono, the vocal tracks are crystal clear. However, many of the sound effects, especially the explosions, come through somewhat muted.
Special features add to the overall enjoyment of this package. First up, the award winning 1972 documentary on the making of Silent Running. At 50 minutes in length, it does drag, but the payoff is well worth the investment of your time. The commentary by director Trumbull and star Bruce Dern (recorded 16 October 2000) is a real treat. Great nuggets of information uncovered include the consideration of Larry Hagman (I Dream of Jeannie) for the lead role, the strained relationship between Trumbull and Stanley Kubrick, and Todd Browning's Freaks as the inspiration for the drones. The new 30-minute featurette, on the other hand, can be skipped, as most of the comments are repeated in the more engaging commentary track. The 10-minute conversation with Bruce Dern is entertaining, as is the five minute conversation with Trumbull on the development of the Showscan technology (high speed 70mm cinematography) and his subsequent creation of Universal Studio's Back to the Future attraction. Rounding out the extras, we have a trailer (my how far we've come), production notes (Zzzzzz), cast and filmmaker bios (yawn), recommendations (Universal DVD catalog highlights), and a DVD newsletter ("subscribe to our email list and you'll be in the KNOW!").
Having never seen Silent Running before, I was surprised by its relevance and emotional impact. For sci-fi fans, I strongly recommend renting this one. For students of film and fans of the movie, this is a must buy. Silent Running is the grandfather of modern science fiction/fantasy films and Universal has honored it with respect and reverence.
Silent Running is found innocent on all counts. However, Universal is hereby ordered to honor more great films with similar care and attention. This court is now in recess.
Review content copyright © 2002 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Commentary by Director Douglas Trumbull and Actor Bruce Dern
* Making of Silent Running -- 1972 Featurette
* Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull -- New Featurette
* Conversation with Bruce Dern
* Douglas Trumbull: Then and Now
* Theatrical Trailer
* Production Notes
* Cast and Filmmakers
* DVD Newsletter
* The Making of Silent Running (documentary)
* Cinefex -- Douglas Trumbull