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
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
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.
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