Science fiction with an environmental theme has a dodgy track record to say the least, thanks to the fact that the issue is a politically heated one. At the best of times, you end up with films such as Wall E or Dune where the environmental commentary is present without being preachy. At the worst of times, such films are fire and brimstone sermons designed to guilt trip the audience, with the pertinent issues presented in only the most black and white of terms (see: Avatar). Most of the time, we end up with middling films or entertaining embarrassments, such as Waterworld.
So thank God for Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 science fiction mini-classic Silent Running, an environmentally themed film that forgoes being didactic in favour of being a psychological drama in which the loss of nature is symbolic for a loss of humanity. While flawed and occasionally heavy handed, the film is a complex work, with striking imagery and ideas which are held together by a magnificent performance from star Bruce Dern (The ‘Burbs).
Silent Running concerns Freeman Lowell (Dern), a crewmember aboard the spaceship Valley Forge, who maintains the last remaining forests of Earth. Valley Forge also is the home of three other crewmembers, none who hold Lowell’s personal investment in preserving the forests, and are more interested in going home after 8 years in space. Having to wait until they are recalled, these three pass their time performing their jobs, lounging about, and giving Lowell grief.
This early section of the film, with its blatant Eden imagery of Lowell as a Space Age Adam, are disheartening to say the least, and leave the impression that the rest of the film to follow will be full of righteous anger and nothing else. This is only confirmed further as we are presented with several moments in which Lowell preaches to the rest of the crew about how oblivious they are to the importance of the forests, both for the spirit of mankind as well as basic survival. It is seemingly all designed to be a quick shortcut to getting the audience on Lowell’s side: he is the outsider; the other crew members treat him with contempt; and they openly wreck havoc on Lowell’s forests.
So when the orders come to destroy the forests, it is no surprise that Lowell makes a stand against the rest of the crew. At this point, it would be fair to guess that the film would follow a fairly predictable path, with Lowell courageously bucking orders by engaging in a battle of wits between himself and the crew for the rest of film. Lowell perhaps might even die in a noble, if tragic, fashion at the film’s conclusion.
Instead, Lowell kills the rest of the crew in a matter of minutes, transforming the Space Adam into Space Cain. Like Cain, Lowell becomes literally and figuratively disconnected from humanity, drifting away through space in an effort to protect his Eden and hide his crimes. And, much like Cain, Lowell discovers that his ability to preserve the forests is compromised, he is unable to solve why the last forest is dying.
This fusion of Biblical narrative, environmentalism and character study give Silent Running a surprising power, both emotionally and intellectually. Lowell’s journey is epic and mythic whilst retaining the crushing ambiguities of life, and the film provides no easy answers to the questions it raises concerning dehumanisation and the destruction of the environment. Instead, director Turnbull simply captures the weight and frustrations of the issues, refusing to allow his work to be interpreted in any one, narrow manner by providing us a future that is neither a utopia or dystopia, nor providing us a character that is strictly a saint or sinner. The film even goes as far to note that human kind on Earth has managed to survive without the forests, and that disease and poverty have been eliminated. Given this, Lowell's attitudes about the preservation of the forest are brought into question. This will likely anger the extremists on both sides of the environment debate, but for everyone else provide an engaging experience in working out the complexities of the narrative.
As noted, the film is a showcase for star Dern, who carries the film for more than two thirds by himself. Dern walks a fine line with the role, balancing the character’s arrogance and obsessive tendencies with a fragile vulnerability, and he manages to pull it off successfully. Perhaps no bigger testament to Dern’s abilities as an actor can be found than a farewell speech he delivers to one of the ships drones, which is given enough sincerity and commitment as to make the scene one of the most touching in the film, despite the fact that he is talking to what looks like a dumpster pail.
Director Turnbull, who made his directorial debut with this film, is clearly hamstrung by the film’s low budget and his own lack of experience as a director: the exterior shots of the ship are clearly models, and at times it appears as if he was unsure how to stage a scene that does not involve special effects. For the most part however, Turnbull makes the most of his limitations and captures an appropriately cold and contemplative atmosphere, allowing Lowell to be visually dominated by the environment around him, just as Lowell is emotionally and intellectually caught between past, present, and future.
The film does feature a few significant flaws though. While I hate it when films are labelled “dated,” as if it is a real criticism of a work (all films date. All things date, so why hold that against them?), the film features songs clearly written in the dying days of the counter culture movement. This would not be bad if it were not for the fact that the songs are dreadful, and engage in the type of heavy handedness avoided or critiqued in the rest of the film. While these songs are mostly kept to the clunky montage sequences, they stand out as a particular problem in the film’s final moments, as the most striking image of the film is almost undermined by the overly sentimental song playing on the soundtrack, making the image nearly laughable rather than poetic.
That final shot however is a powerful one, and encompasses the film's themes and ambiguities perfectly. While I do not wish to spoil the film’s conclusion, I would like to ask the following questions to consider after watching: how long can Lowell’s solution last? And more importantly, if it can last, what does this final shot say about the place of humanity in the future?