Eureka Entertainment // 1971 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // October 5th, 2011
"The fact is, Lowell, if people were interested, something would have been done a long time ago."
With their release of Silent Running (Blu-ray) -- Region B, Eureka offers a chance to reassess one of sci-fi's best hidden gems.
In the future, for reasons that are never made completely clear, Earth is no longer able to support plant life, which in turn has caused most species to be wiped out. While man continues to live on the planet, what little plant life is left exists now only in large geodesic domes aboard huge cargo ships in space. When the call comes to destroy the domes, one man, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern, The Burbs), disobeys orders and takes matters into his own hands.
Aged just twenty-nine years, Douglas Trumbull, who had previously worked as the special effects supervisor on Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, would make his directorial debut with 1971's ecologically aware sci-fi Silent Running. An oft-forgotten entry into the sci-fi genre -- it's certainly not as visible as other masterworks like Blade Runner, which, coincidentally, Trumbull would also work on -- Silent Running is one of the most emotional, and humane, science fiction movies of the seventies, if not any decade since.
Director Andrew Stanton has gone on record as including Silent Running amongst his influences when making Wall-E, suggesting the similarities between the two films are wholly intentional. Both films deal with a future where the plant life on Earth has been destroyed. Unlike Wall-E, though, in Silent Running mankind has not left the planet behind; instead a sterile utopia has been formed, where the temperature is a constant seventy-five degrees, everyone has a job, and everyone and everywhere is the same. More importantly, it seems nobody cares about the defoliation of the planet, or that animal life has all but been wiped out. Aboard the American Airlines space freighter Valley Forge, Freeman Lowell tends to the forests and animals that now only exist within six enormous geodesic domes. Unlike the three crewmen who assist him in his mission, Lowell is alone in the hope that one day they will be recalled to begin the reforestation of the Earth.
For those who felt the best part of Wall-E came before Wall-E and EVE boarded the Axiom, Silent Running comes as something of a blessing. Rather than increasing its small character roster, Silent Running reduces it till only Lowell is left. This allows Trumbull to tell a tale of a man's desperate attempts to preserve something "irreplaceable," as he takes drastic steps to ensure the Earth's natural beauty survives. As such, Silent Running plays as a slow-burning character study that allows the film's eco-message to reverberate with the viewer.
Bruce Dern turns in a magnificent performance as Freeman Lowell. An early scene sees Lowell enjoying a game of cards with his crewmates, except Lowell isn't enjoying it at all. Beyond the basic compassion most humans share, Lowell might as well be from a different species. He fails to understand the lack of concern his crewmates have for the state of the Earth. He tries to get through to them, at one point giving an impassioned plea to see reason, "There is no more beauty, there is no more imagination, and there are no frontiers left to conquer, and do you know why? Only one reason why: one reason why, the same attitude that you three guys are giving me right here in this room today, and that is: nobody cares!" Lowell truly is the last of a kind, and his decision to go it alone in saving what little of the Earth's forests remains doesn't come as any surprise. Though he is forced into taking extreme action, Lowell does so with a heavy heart -- he's not a violent man, but his frustration -- his impotence in changing the way others think -- leaves him with little choice. Being the only person on screen for much of the movie, it would have been easy for Dern to turn in a bombastic performance, allowing the isolation his character feels to become too showy. Dern is better than that, and his portrayal of Lowell is deeply understated. Lowell is an intelligent man, but one who savors the simple beauties in life. He is happiest when left alone with the animals that live in the domes, and finds nothing but frustration when forced to deal with other humans.
Trumbull's direction ensures the emotional content of the film remains more important than the sci-fi aspects of the story. This ensures the viewer is much more readily able to accept Lowell's decisions, and to empathize with him. Rather impressively, Trumbull somehow makes the viewer connect with the trio of drones (named Huey, Dewey, and Louie), despite their resembling a bunch of walking washing machines. The pacing of the film is intentionally slow, but this should not be considered a negative, as it allows the viewer to bask in the impressive sets, and enjoy Dern's memorable performance.
Perhaps the one aspect of the film that dates it, and may come across as a little hokey, would be the contributions of Joan Baez, the famed folk singer. The title track, along with "Rejoice in the Sun," is perhaps a little too hippie-like for the younger viewer, what with its lyrics of "Fields of children running wild in the sun." Still, as film critic Mark Kermode's autobiography, It's Only A Movie, reveals, Ms. Baez little recalls her contributions, and hasn't even seen the film.
Eureka brings Silent Running to Region B Blu-ray with a new 1.85:1/1080p transfer; and it's a corker. Colors are incredibly vibrant, with deep black levels, which add a good degree of depth to the image. Detail levels are high, with the fabrics of Lowell clothing, or individual beads of sweat on his brow evident. The print lacks signs of damage. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master audio provides crisp dialogue and clear sound effects, which are easily discernable from the rest of the soundtrack.
The Blu-ray release of Silent Running comes with few extras, but those included are excellent. A commentary track, recorded in 2000, features Trumbull and Dern discussing their time working together on the film. An "Interview with Bruce Dern" clocks in at 11 minutes, and sees Dern discuss his role in the film, and is accompanied by numerous production stills. "Silent Running By Douglas Trumbull" (31 minutes) has the filmmaker discussing his film, and is accompanied by "Douglas Trumbull: Then and Now" (5 minutes) which looks at his post Silent Running career. The disc also affords the viewer the opportunity to view the film with an isolated music and effects track. Also included is the films original theatrical trailer. The final retail copy also promises a booklet featuring rare production imagery, and more.
Silent Running is intelligent sci-fi that contains an important message. The way it deals with mankind's apathy towards the Earth's destruction was prescient in 1971, and feels totally relevant today.
Eureka's Blu-ray release of Silent Running, as part of their Masters of Cinema line, once again shows how to treat classics, with an excellent audio/visual presentation, and a clutch of quality extras.
Review content copyright © 2011 Paul Pritchard; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Not Rated