Sunday, April 10, 2011

Silent Running

The early 1970's, specifically the period between 2001 and Star Wars, was a very interesting period in American science fiction film. Prior to the Spielberg/Lucas revolution that occurred in the later years, most science fiction films were dark and thought provoking. Many drew some inspiration from Kubrik's successful masterpiece. I mean, look at this lineup:

Colossus: The Forbin Project - 1970
The Adromeda Strain - 1971
The Omega Man - 1971
THX 1138 - 1971
Soylent Green - 1973
Logan's Run - 1976

These were all very original works that imagined the human race in serious trouble, at a time when the country was going through its own trials and tribulations. There's one more that I did not list which falls into the same category and which I've always thought of as the most strikingly unique of the bunch, even if not very much else. That film imagined a world where humans had trashed the earth so badly that they had to send all their natural resources out into space until they could get things in order. I'm not speaking about WALL-E, but about 1972's Silent Running, starring Bruce Dern in the lead, and almost exclusive, role.

Make no mistake, this film's message is unabashedly environmentalist. The title track and montages are written and performed by none other than Joan Baez, the prominent musical voice of the 60's flower child movement. When I said natural resources, I meant huge intact landscapes of forestry and entire ecosystems preserved in giant temperature controlled domes, transparent to allow the sun's light in. Dern plays the head gardener, Freeman Lowell, on his particular ship, assisted by several small helper robots. His goof-off shipmates seem not to care about the payload they are carrying, which is portrayed as the typical attitude of earth's general population in this future. Dern's performance seems odd at times. He preaches to his shipmates about how no one cares anymore about the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees, and does it with such passion that he comes across to them, and to us, like a mad-man. But the great irony is that given the circumstances, the imminent loss of all that is beautiful on our planet, his words do not sound crazy to us at all. We would be saying the same in his shoes, and we would be acting just as desperately if no one else seemed to understand or care.

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The big plot setup comes when the ships are called home because they are needed for another "more important" mission and they are ordered to jettison and destroy their payloads. While the others are ecstatic to be able to go home, Lowell is horrified and after watching a few domes explode in space, he decides to save the last one, at the expense of his 3 colleagues' lives. The tension never really goes away in your mind about whether it is right or wrong to sympathize with Lowell's actions. People are more important than plants and animals, but are 3 people more important than the last remaining wildlife on earth? Lowell must continue to put on a ruse with ground control about it being an accident and that his ship is uncontrollably slipping behind Saturn and very likely toward destruction as it passes through the rings (Why they are near Saturn is never really explained but see my comments further down on the special effects). Well, he makes it through the rings and then into deep solar orbit where he finds he must set up a lighting system in the forest to make up for the lack of sunlight. Lowell's ingenuity continues to impress when a rescue party locates him and prepares to board. He decides to commission his droid assistants to take care of the forest and jettisons it out into space on its own journey. He then destroys the ship, himself aboard, to wipe out any record of what occurred, thus giving the fledgeling ark of nature a chance to survive without being pursued. A simple, yet powerful story.

The special effects crew on this film were quite impressive. Producer Douglas Trumbull was a special effects director for 2001. Several others on the visual effects team went on to join ILM and work on the original Star Wars. Although you can see the obvious miniaturization in places, it is rather good for its time. The ships have the freight train-like design of the Discovery - long thin body with large round cabin section at front and engine in back. The choice to put the ships near Saturn was mainly so that they could use space scenes that were created for 2001 but never used. The sets are filled with interesting things like hexagonal storage containers, go-cart transport vehicles, and round pool tables equipped with a robotic opponent for practice.
But by far the most interesting effect is the operation of the droids, affectionately named Huey, Duey, and Louie. On first viewing, I could not figure out how they did it. The movements look too organic to be fully remote controlled, yet they are too small for a person to fit inside. I later found out that they employed four paraplegics (no legs) on the set, who would get into the specially made suits and walk around on their hands. How's that for ingenuity?

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