Silent Running (1972) did low budget Independent Science Fiction before it was cool and inspired many other first time filmmakers to try and make their features for little to no money. The picture seized the success that Easy Rider (1969) had brought a few years earlier, as Hollywood studios for a limited time, we’re willing to give untested young talent a try for $1 million productions. Director Trumbull was one of five lucky filmmakers to achieve one of the five low-budget productions Universal were willing to green-light.
The film was made under extremely trying circumstances, as every Cent had to be fully accounted for and a great number of scenes had to be shot each day, to meet the thirty two day shoot schedule. This stipulated that most shots had to be got in one or two takes, which in all honesty is blatantly obvious throughout the movie, as Dern overacts on occasion and fights appear staged.
The Trumbull led production is set approximately one hundred years after the films initial release, focusing on a group of four astronauts in deep space, who live and thrive in an incredible spaceship, containing Bio-Domes, to support natural animal and plant life to sustain the crew.
Our protagonist Freeman Lowell, played by a young Bruce Dern, embodies the ‘Hippy’ culture of the late 1960s and early 70s, as he has a deep care and understanding of peace and harmony with nature. His job on the spacecraft, is to maintain the lavish Bio-Domes and produce luscious fruits and plants.
Trumbull hits us with the scale of the film from the opening shot as we follow a snail across a leaf and out into the lavish jungle dome. The director quickly follows this up with numerous lengthy exterior shots of the spaceship cruising through the deep black of space, created by a large model, built largely from World War II toy components. We sit back in awe at these opening scenes, but when we discover that Trumbull worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), in the effects department, it comes at no surprise that he is able to suspend belief on such a small budget.
The confrontation arrives quickly as it is transmitted via radio from the Mother-Ship that they are to return to earth, but must first destroy their Bio-Domes, the treasure of Lowell. This creates a likely division as Lowell’s crew mates are the typical American air-head stereotypes, with little interest in nature or wildlife and are more than happy to destroy the tranquil Bio-Domes.
However, they’ll have to go through Lowell first, who isn’t quite the nerdy ‘Hippy’ push-over they think he will be. Lowell sees nature and the forest inside the principal Bio-Dome as his own children, which he should protect with his own life. He believes that nature and non-human life in general are the only relics of what Earth could be like in it’s perfect state.
Push comes to shove, shortly followed by spade to leg as Lowell successfully defends his precious forest, with the ‘collateral damage’ of his other crew losing their lives. This sparks a sudden transformation in Lowell, from a nerdy life preserving ‘Hippy’, to one that has taken life to protect another, is human life more scared than plant life?
Thus begins the rest of the film as Lowell drifts through space alone, apart from his remarkable drones, operated by real life amputees. Not since Metropolis (1927), had film seen such mesmerising robots, full of so much life and mystery. The drones are the definition of cuteness and totter around like newly born children, as Lowell slowly befriends them. How many times since 1972 have we seen cute robot companions? Wall-E, Chappie, R2D2, the list is endless.
Trumbull masterfully keeps our interest, despite there only being one talking head for two thirds of the film, with the mute drone reactions, with flapping parts enough to support conversation and character and story progression. As Lowell gets more and more attached to the drones, we naturally do too, as we spend all our screen time with them, as he teaches them cards and intimately repairs them.
However, Lowell’s murderous actions haunt him more and more everyday. Should he have killed them and surrendered his precious dome? Was there no other way? His loneliness increases as one drone is blown away far into space and another succumbs to its injuries, when hit by Lowell’s go-kart.
Alone, save for his last faithful drone, slightly maddened, Lowell must make a choice as to whether to surrender his ship and his precious dome and face reprimands for his actions, or to try and keep the precious life from his company’s prying hands.
The decision comes with a great emotional scene between Lowell and his last drone as they say their goodbyes, before Lowell goes to his suicide and the drone to continue his work, to ensure the vibrant life of the forest never dies.
Thus we have a very apt and poetic ending, as man dies for his beliefs and robot continues his work. The robot needed man to program it to function and give it duties and man needed the robot to prolong his work forevermore.
Silent Running rightly deserves it’s cult status it has built up through the years. Director Trumbull, takes us on a fascinating journey of space, human and artificial intelligence relationships and questions the creation of life. Unfortunately, it is certainly fair to say that the film is more than just rough around the edges, due to the constraints it was under to exist, but perhaps this is part of the charm of Independent films after all.
The film exists thanks to being in the right place at the right time. The young talent involved in the the film and many, such as Dern, went on to have long and great careers. We sit and hope that this opportunity may arrive again one day, where the young are given their chance to create and prosper in their art.