Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Why I love "Silent Running" (and you should too)

There are movies you want to forget, movies that entertain purely in the moment and wash from your consciousness five minutes after you leave the theater, and then there are movies that keep creeping back into your consciousness years or decades later, demanding to be watched again to see if they've stood up to the sands of time.

For me, "Silent Running" is one of the latter category of films. I've watched it many times over the years, though not recently, but several months ago it came up in an on-line discussion, and I was compelled to rent the DVD from Netflix and watch it again.

Now, this is always a task approached with trepidation, because some films simply don't hold up, even films you've watched repeatedly and enjoyed. Eventually you, or the world you live in, simply passes them by. At best they become watchable as a relic of their time or an object of nostalgia. On surface, Silent Running seems particularly vulnerable to this, with its Joan Baez songs, cult actor Bruce Dern as star, and its vaguely counter-culture themes.

But I was pleased to find that not only did the film hold up, it's actually aging well. Yes, the once-thrilling special effects have gone from spectacular to merely serviceable for the most part, but there's never a point where they become embarrassing. The spaceship interior sets still look great, and for the most part would look right at home in any modern science fiction film or TV show. And the drones, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, are still among the best cinematic robots (and most endearing non-human characters) of all time.

The enjoyable soundtrack (by Peter Scheckele, better known as his alter-ego P.D.Q. Bach) gives the sometimes claustrophobic film grandeur and scope, and the songs, which at the time seemed to me a bit intrusive, now seem organic and essential to the film.

Moreover, the writing, direction, and performances (much of the movie is essentially a one-man-show, with Bruce Dern ably carrying the movie with only the drones and his artificial environment to play against).

But not only did the movie hold up, as I watched it, I became increasingly convinced that it was not merely a good movie, it was an important movie, a cinematic milestone that almost single handedly created the modern space science fiction film.

Without Silent Running there is no Star Wars, no Close Encounters of the Third Kind, no Star Trek films (or follow-on TV series), no Babylon 5 or Farscape or reimagined Galactica. In so many areas, from the most technical to the most artistic, Silent Running either radically changed or reinvented the genre in dozens of important ways.

Silent Running
should be recognized as one of the ground-breaking sf films of all time, on a list with Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001, Alien, Bladerunner, and a handful of other better-known films. But for the most part, it seems to languish in obscurity, existing in the shadow of Star Wars, a film that in many ways is made in its image, and in at least a few ways is probably inferior.

Why? Well, Silent Running wasn't a huge commercial success a the time. It was produced as part of an experimental program by Universal to produce five films on a budget of a million dollars (which sounds absurdly low-budget now, and was still pretty low even then) each (ironically, one of these five was George Lucas' break-out hit, American Graffiti). But also as part of the experiment, it was shoved into theaters with no real publicity campaign. Like many people, I think I first became aware of the film not from its initial release, but from seeing the soundtrack album (with its spectacular art from the poster seen above) in a record store. Likely, I first saw the movie on TV, though I later saw it in art-house and college film-class screenings.

People who have seen Silent Running usually remember it, but frankly, not that many people have seen it. The current DVD release lists for about $15, is packed with extras (several documentaries including a 45-minute "making of," and a commentary track by director Doug Trumbull and Bruce Dern) and is well worth seeking out.

So enough about it being good. Here are some of the reasons I think it's important...

1.The entire "Star Wars" era of special effects begins here.

Now, admittedly, Doug Trumbull cut his teeth on the ground-breaking effects of 2001, a Space Odyssey, but in many ways, that film would have a dead end without this film. Director Stanley Kubrick was notoriously secretive about some aspects of the effects, to the extent of destroying the models and most records of their creation after the film was finished. This may have had more to do with preventing a sequel than any real attempt to hide his methods, but while many "big iron" effects for the film (like the rotating Discovery centrifuge set) were well publicized and documented, the model work was relatively undocumented.

In addition, 2001 did little but verify the conventional wisdom of Hollywood: that good special effects could only be done in a huge-budget studio blockbuster. The idea that first rate effects could be done cheaply, and might even make the movie cheaper, that just was unimaginable.

So along comes Silent Running, done on a modest budget, which still managed to incorporate some of the most spectacular models and effects seen on screen until that time. It established the hyper-detailed "kitbashing" (using plastic model parts and other shapes to provide surface texture on spaceships) look that would soon be followed by Star Wars and countless other movies and TV series.

One of the people working under Trumbull on the effects was John Dykstra, who managed most of the model photography for the movie. Dykstra was the wizard who developed the computerized motion-control camera system that made possible the elaborate space-battles of the pre-CGI Star Wars movies (and pretty much every other effects film to follow). Though there is no motion-control on Silent Running, the long-exposure photography methods used on the models were similar, and there were then state-of-the-art robots on set. It isn't difficult to imagine Dykstra already putting the pieces together in his mind.

2. Silent Running brought industrial thinking into film-making

Prior to Silent Running, not only special effects, but many aspects of movie production, had long been static. Sets, props, and models were "old school," done with wood, plaster, fabric and more rarely, metal. Most physical aspects of the film, lights, photography, construction, used long-established methods, many of them rooted in the theater.

Silent Running seemed to take a fresh-look at almost everything. Trumbull came from an engineering background, and he brought new technologies, materials, and production methods into the film. Sets and props were produced using modern plastic molding techniques. Rather than simply using wooden props, many items on the Silent Running set were in some way functional: the small ATV vehicles driven around the ship, robotic arms, video monitors, electronic instrumentation, it didn't just sort of look right, it worked. It contributed to a feeling a realism and believability that holds up pretty well even today.

More importantly, though Star Wars had a larger budget, it simply couldn't have been done without the methods established by Silent Running. You see this all through the film in thousands of places, but it's most obvious in the stormtrooper armor. In old-school Hollywood, it would have required more than film's entire budget to individually produce each suit by hand. The use of plastics allowed them to be mass-produced affordably. The same goes for many of the droids, vehicles, and even Darth Vader himself.

3. Silent Running established the "grunge" look for science fiction films

Before Silent Running, the look for most science fiction spacecraft was clean, mechanical, and sterile. The Valley Forge was one-part well-used industrial and one part lived in. The floors were dirty. People decorated their living spaces, they played pool and poker to kill the boredom. Things showed wear-and-tear. People personalized their uniforms. The Valley Forge was a place where people lived and worked, and it showed it.

Star Wars took it a step farther, by creating even more grungy places (trash-masher, anyone?) and showing us whole, living, cities and worlds, but it starts with Silent Running, and you can trace the line on to the Alien movies and even Bladerunner.

4. Silent Running brought fully-realized characters into science fiction film

Before Silent Running, most future science fiction charters fell into the categories of a handful of stereotypes. There was the square-jawed hero/military man. There was the idealistic and detached (possibly even mad) scientist. There was the cold-blooded human robot. There was the lovely but helpless heroine. There was the slightly dim comic relief. The godly and arrogant (possibly with justification, probably not) alien. A few others.

Even superior films like 2001 and Forbidden Planet usually drew their characters from that pool (and to a lesser extent, so did the Star Wars films that followed).

But the hero of Silent Running wasn't all good, and it's villains weren't really bad. All of them had reasons for acting as they did, flaws, and a whole range of human quirks. Bruce Dern clearly gets a great deal of credit for bringing his character to life, and for picking a number of his Actor's Studio pals to fill out the rest of the Valley Forge crew. These characters wouldn't have been out of place on a contemporary commercial fishing boat, or an oil-platform, or a coal mine, and that was exactly the point. Silent Running brought to cinema the idea that while technology and circumstances may move on, people will remain very much the same. It suggested that science fiction could tell human, character-driven stories, and not just intellectual treatments of ideas, or scary tails of monsters, or square-jawed adventures.

The crew of the Valley Forge is the clear model for the crew of Alien's Nostromo, or the space marines that followed them in Aliens, or the space-cowboys of Serenity.

5. Its environmental themes are more timely than ever

Unfortunately, the idea that ecosystems might collapse, that forests would all be destroyed, and especially that most people would just sit around and let it happen, that all seems way more credible to me now than it did in 1972. Yes, from a strictly science-fictional standpoint, this works best taken as an eco-fable. (What do the people on this plant-deprived Earth eat, or even breath for that matter?) But it's way less over-the-top that I originally thought. (Actually, a whole range of 70s cautionary sf films, Soylent Green, the Omega Man, even Planet of the Apes, seems less fantastic than they once did, which is a pretty sad commentary on the state of modern life, actually.)

6. Best robots ever!

Okay, this is a stretch, especially as fond as I am of Robby the Robot, but Huey, Dewey and Louie broke all manner of ground for cinematic robots. With the exception of Robby, most movie robots to this point had been soulless monsters, just waiting (and often not very long) to run amok. Even Robby, as benign as he is, remains a frightening and potent symbol of technology beyond our understanding.

The drones were believably tools, simply serving as they were programmed to serve. Yet as sophisticated as they obviously are, they also have developed human-like quirks and surprising behaviors. It's hard not to think of them as innocent children caught in some tragedy beyond their understanding. Perhaps this is actually their nature, or perhaps it is merely something we as humans, trying to understand them, project on their boldly un-anthropomorphic shapes and methods of moving and communicating. Either way, it says as much as us as it does about them.

Many scenes with the drones remain the most moving and memorable in the movie. Trumbull's genius was in making them both the least anthropomorphic of film robots, and the most human. The drones were played by human actors, double-amputees, walking on their hands, and hidden inside clever, light-weight, plastic suits, allowing them to deliver a convincing performance without needing to resort to mechanical contrivances to hide their humanity. And of course, Bruce Dern's performance in playing to them also deserves some credit for the power their scenes carry.

And while some aspects of the on-screen methods used to program the drones haven't held up well (keying card-game rules by hand into a terminal or resoldering circuits under a microscope, all guided by a mimeographed service manual), overall their appearance and behaviors have only become more realistic as robots have advanced. I suspect that it's only a matter of time before some robotic scientist, influenced by the film at an early age, builds a functional drone modeled on the early version.

Even if George Lucas hadn't admitted the influence, it should be obvious that without the drones, there is no R2D2 as we know him. And while R2D2 is a pretty cool film robot, in most every measure besides public recognition, the drones just have him beat.

There are other points to be made, but I think the defense can rest here. Without Silent Running, it's doubtful that any of the modern classics of science fiction film and television would exist, or at least, if they'd exist in anything like the form we know them today. It's a landmark, ground-breaking film which had untold influence on the industry.

It's interesting to note too that all the film's influence can't be credited entirely to the film itself. While much of the production of 2001 went unseen, every aspect of Silent Running was unusually well documented. Not only was it the subject of a detailed 45 minute "making of" documentary (yes, the one on the DVD), but it was covered extensively in the industry press, most notably a massive series of articles in American Cinematographer magazine.

Thanks to this, Silent Running provided both inspiration for a whole generation of film makers hoping to make low-budget science fiction films, and a "how-to" guide to dozens of useful and innovative techniques that could be applied to make them.

It's a shame that Doug Trumbull was as interested in innovating the technology used to produce and display films as he was in the films themselves. As a result, he made only one other major theatrical feature, 1983's Brainstorm, a film better known for the death during production of star Natalie Wood than any virtue of the film itself.

Instead of making films, Trumbull became obsessed with a series of largely dead-end large-format projection systems that he hoped would bring greater realism and audience involvement to the masses. Some of these later did find some application in motion-ride systems, and Trumbull did direct several programs for these attractions.

But while this new technology could have revolutionized cinema, for various reasons it didn't, and now the digital world has largely passed it by. I'd trade it all for even one more film like Silent Running.


  1. Testify!

    Honestly, I have not a single word to add to this spirited and thoughtful over-view.

    And I'd still love to see the sequel, set perhaps a hundred years later, wherein humans from an Earth that exists solely on synthesized chemicals, in self-contained habitats that might as well be moon colonies, find Huey tending that last forest dome.

  2. A great, thoughtful commentary. I think it is an important film for the ecological aspect alone. Think I will rent it again so I can watch it with my son. He was too young to remember the first time he saw it. Karen

  3. Anonymous11:00 AM

    Brilliant essay. You really hit it out of the park by reminding us that "Silent Running" set the 'grubby future' cinema paradigm. I remember seeing SR as a teenager, and thinking that the future may not be as clean as on Star Trek.

  4. I agree totally with your comments as well - I remember seeing the film first on TV at quite a young age (I'm currently 45) - must have been mid to late 70's or so. It had a large inpact on me - I also remember reading a bit about the production - I'm not exactly sure where, but it's probably in my stack of original Starlog magazines (also where I first saw Star Wars - even before the trailers). Dark Star is another film to take a look at (not as wonderful by any means).

    -- John

  5. Wow, nice writeup!

    I have a site devoted to the Valley Forge (one of my favorite SF spacecraft), at http://www.lunadude.com/pet_proj/valley_forge

    I'll stop back by to read more.

  6. Lunadude's site is indeed fantastic. A great collection of reference materials and rare photos of the Valley Forge, many of which would make nifty computer desktops.

  7. I couldn't agree more!! I saw this when it first came to TV. I only wish I could see it on the big screen! I was facinated by the drones!! I've been a fan of American Airlines ever since, too.;-) I tried to draw up plans to make one of the carts they drove all over the ship. This move has affected me in so many ways. After 2001 and Marooned, Silent Running was the next movie to shape my love of SciFi and space travel. This was very well put. Kudos to you!!!!!!

  8. The movie Silent Running was a plea for people to return to sanity and take care of the planet. Yes, and it's influences on other films is huge and it does hold up well over time.

    Note-The story was written with Bruce Dern in mind to play the lead right from the beginning, I heard. One of the reasons Silent Running was a hit was because it there conventional thinking to the wind and experimented to create something new. And unless you are willing to risk falling on your face. You won't create a classic film. If you play it safe you make a film that just looks like everything else.

    The music of the film also went against the grain at the time. the studio wanted techno sci-fi sounding music like what was used in forbidden planet. instead they used a freshly written score in the style of classical music and folk music by Joan Baez.

    Lucas later used a freshly written classic style score for Star Wars. And as much as Lucas ripped off Silent Running he had the nerve to sue universal studios for Battlestar Galatical. Universal counter sued saying he ripped them off for Silent Running first and they won the case. And besides you can't copy right a genre George.

  9. Also sci-fi films like 2001 made space into a soundless void(which it is). Silent Running used explosions in space for the domes exploding. Another innovation that Lucas copied in Star Wars.