More noise than signal

Silent Running

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Directed by special effects supremo Douglas Trumbull, this has gone on to be a touchstone in the 70’s miserabilist, doom-laden sci-fi subgenre – no jaunty, mental Robinson Crusoe on Mars here. It is not, no matter what Wikipedia’s synopsis might tell you, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film. You can tell this because, as a general rule, societies that have suffered an apocalyptic event do not spend any precious remaining resources on orbital arboretums, nor on equipping said space-gardens with pool-playing robots. These are not recognised on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as far as I’m aware.

From what little detail the film dishes out, it sounds rather more like a Soylent Green scenario – vastly overcrowded planet, difficult living conditions and food manufactured en-masse, rather than grown organically. Indeed, it seems the situation is so bad that all of the land mass has been given over to urbanisation, but those forward thinking eggheads and boffins have decided to hedge their bets on biodiversity by building a number of massive orbital greenhouses to host the plant and animal life displaced, in case they are ever needed to replant the Earth.

Onboard one of these greenhouses, the Valley Forge, is humourless, touchy space hippy Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), and three twelve year old boys in adult’s bodies that, for reasons we’ll get to soon enough, we need not concern ourselves with. Also on board are three wobbling maintenance robots, who go a long way towards proving that bipedal robots are an awful idea.

Lowell decides to take drastic action when an order comes through to scuttle the greenhouses and return to Earth, a decision that by itself seems questionable – surely having done the difficult part of hauling oak trees into space, the running costs aren’t that significant? But at any rate, Lowell refuses and sets about hijacking the ship, only very slightly reluctantly murdering his manchild co-workers in the process.

The rest of the film shows Lowell making a break for freedom, aided by the robots that he reprograms to help with tending the plants and playing poker, to the best of their roundly inadequate manipulator arms’ ability. These are terrible, terrible robots, although this doesn’t stop Lowell having a more caring relationship with them than any of the humans formerly on-board ship.

Crisis comes in two forms in the final act, as an approaching rescue ship threatens to expose the lies Lowell came up with to cover his murder and hijacking. More pressingly for Lowell, the plants he cares for so much are dying because, incredulously, the botanist assigned to look after plants hasn’t realised that plants need sunlight to survive, making him both a murder and a clueless buffoon.

Having fixed this with appropriate artificial lighting, he thankfully puts himself out of our misery when he realises the only hope for the survival of the greenhouse is to jettison it into space to drift along, tended by the remaining robot seemingly armed with one battered tin watering can to cover several acres of greenhouse, while Lowell scuttles the rest of the Valley Forge and himself, bringing this ludicrous display to a thankful end.

Some people seem to like this film and take it seriously, I have no idea why. It is baffling to me. The only positive I can take from this is that, as you’d perhaps expect with Trumbull on board, the effects work, specifically the models, are really well handled. Everything else? Well, the supposed hero is a clown who’s only one corpse short of being a mass murder, and who was unlikable enough before flipping out and killing people, which doesn’t help much with the whole empathy thing. There’s not much in the way of a story after that event, reducing to a number of vignettes of Lowell losing his sanity which might have been more effective if the character wasn’t a cold-blooded murderer, a point I feel I need to come back to fairly often lest you forget what we’re being sold here, and also if he wasn’t played by Bruce Dern, who’s gurning does not sit well with me.

Its ecological message is valid enough, but after being beaten about the head with it for ninety minutes I’m left with the urge to go start a forest fire. This film makes my teeth itch. Take it away from me.