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CREDITS: Original music by Peter Schickele; Songs: Rejoice in the Sun and Silent Running by Joan Baez; Written by Deric Washburn, Mike Cimino and Steven Bochco; Produced by Michael Gruskoff, Marty Hornestein and Douglas Trumball; Directed by Douglas Trumbull.

CAST: Bruce Dern (Freeman Lowell); Cliff Potts (John Keenan); Ron Rifkin (Marty Barker); Jesse Vint (Andy Wolf); Steve Brown (Drone); Mark Persons (Drone); Cheryl Sparks (Drone); Larry Whisenhunt (Drone); Joseph Campanella ('Berkshire' Captain, uncredited, voice); Roy Engel (Anderson, uncredited, voice).

STORY: In the future the Earth has experienced an environmental disaster on a staggering scale – what remains of the planet’s open green spaces are preserved in geodesic domes carried by giant cargo ships orbiting near the planet Saturn.

Onboard the spaceship Valley Forge, the four-man crew await a transmission from Earth. Freeman Lowell, a botanist who has been with the forests programme for eight years, hopes the message will be the recall of the ships to make the Earth green again. Sadly when the transmission is received, the order is given for the ships to jettison the domes and self-destruct them with nuclear charges, the ships are to be put back into commercial service.

Lowell, distanced from his crewmates, tends one of his beloved forests as the domes explode all around him, seeing his dream go up in nuclear fire, he snaps, killing crewman Keenan in a struggle and trapping crewmen Baker and Wolf in one of the domes before it is jettisoned and explodes some distance from the ship.

In the fight with Keenan Lowell injured his leg, losing blood, he re-programmes three “drones” – maintenance robots who wander the corridors and surface of the ship, to operate on him.

Informing the captain of the spaceship Berkshire that he is experiencing technical difficulties and that his three friends were killed when one of the domes exploded, Lowell heads the Valley Forge towards Saturn, where radio contact will be lost with the fleet. Over the radio, Lowell’s boss Anderson tells him the ship will pass through Saturn’s rings and that he might want to consider committing suicide before he is almost certainly killed by the trip through the rings.

As the ship heads for the rings Lowell sleeps, only waking when the ship starts experiencing turbulence as it passes through the rings. On this perilous trip, one drone is lost, blasted into space when it does not make it back inside in time due to getting its leg trapped in the surface grating on the hull. Despite this setback, the ship makes it through the rings of Saturn.

Lowell informs the drones, now renamed Huey and Dewey (Louey being lost in space), that they will now work for him, doing their usual jobs but doing more to maintain the one remaining forest. One of their first jobs it to bury the body of Keenan, which Lowell oversees on a monitor. Expressing regret for his actions, nevertheless Lowell reconciles himself to what he did.

In the days that follow, the lone botanist goes on about his duties and often thinking about his dead friends, until one day he goes to the dome and discovers that the forest is dying, and he doesn’t know why!

Heading towards the dome in his buggy after conducting some tests, Dewey is crippled in a collision with the buggy. Lowell does his best to repair the drone but his functions are badly impaired.

The Berkshire interrupts the silence of Lowell’s trip informing him that they conducted a search and rescue mission when they lost contact with him after he entered the dark side. This gives Lowell the answer to the malady affecting the forest – the plants and trees are not getting enough light!

Setting up powerful lamps to light the dome, Lowell informs the drone Huey that his job from now on is to just maintain the forest, Lowell realising that time is running out because the Berkshire will soon be docking with the ship and the truth will be discovered about the events he has set in motion.

Lowell jettisons the last dome into space with Huey onboard, the injured Dewey looks on as Lowell triggers the remaining nuclear charges, blowing himself, the drone and the Valley Forge to kingdom come.

The dome containing the last forest from Earth sails on through space, tended by its faithful guardian, a small blue drone named Huey.

COMMENTS: Silent Running is special effects maestro Douglas Trumbull’s directorial debut, and his direction is confident and assured, paying due attention to character and narrative and not over-emphasising the technical aspects of the film, an aspect that you would have thought he would be more comfortable with.

Star Bruce Dern is never less than magnetic on screen, filling the character of Freeman Lowell with warmth and humour but also an edge that never verges into the sort of part Dern is usually known for – the sleazy sicko!

Joan Baez’s songs could have jarred but their use in montage sequences are well thought out, the film editing particularly shining in these parts of the movie.

In these days of CGI FX, it is easy to dismiss “traditional” FX as being dated and hokey, but the model shots in the film are still impressive and give the film grandeur. The trip through Saturn’s rings, although now known to be scientifically inaccurate, is a highlight as it also works as a metaphor for Freeman Lowell’s troubled psyche.

If you haven’t seen this film, or it’s been a while since you last saw it, rent it or buy it, you won’t be disappointed with its “green” message, performances and technical achievements.

TRIVIA:

The model of the Valley Forge was 26 feet long, being built at this size to represent the fictional ship being a quarter of a mile long!

Four multiple amputees played the drones, operating them from inside a shell of lightweight plastic that still weighed about 20 to 30 pounds.

The spaceship interiors were actually filmed inside a decommissioned aircraft carrier called Valley Forge as it waited to be scrapped. Bulkheads were ripped out and doorways re-cut and then clad with plywood and plastic to give the ship that “spacey’ look.

Trumbull shot hours of footage for the video displays onboard the ship.

John Dykstra worked on the FX for this movie as well as Wayne Smith who would take over from Dykstra on the FX for Battlestar Galactica, and who would be responsible for the visuals on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

The Valley Forge turns up as the agro ship in the Galactica episode “The Magnificent Warriors”, stock footage from Silent Running being integrated with Cylon Raiders in an attack sequence on the rag-tag fleet.

- written by the Peter Noble