Silent Running (1972, Douglas Trumbull)

One of the first movies in ages that we’ve tried to watch with people over, ending as usual in failure. I knew it would be sci-fi with an environmentalism theme, but wasn’t prepared for the woeful hippie Joan Baez songs. Pretty good story/ending/character with pretty good physical action and pre-Star Wars model work, with a couple of exceptional elements. First, obviously, Bruce Dern is wonderful and gets better in the second half when he has nobody but himself and his robot drones to act against. Then there’s the drones – they worried me because I couldn’t figure them out. They’re not shaped correctly to have an actor inside, their robotic parts are truly 1970’s-robotic-looking (simple and slow), but their leg movements looked too natural to not be human. I wouldn’t have guessed there were amputee actors inside. Effects whiz Trumbull brings some of his 2001: A Space Odyssey expertise to a sequence where Dern pilots the ship through Saturn’s rings to escape detection – otherwise it’s mostly bunches of boxes painted silver in front of a starfield.

Two “drones” in foreground, with greenhouse-pod behind:

No explanation is given, but Earth sends commands for the deep-space (why didn’t they stay in orbit?) stations that hold the last of the dystopian planet’s plants and wild animals to detonate their greenhouse pods and return home. Three fun-lovin’ astronaut dudes wheel off in their rovers with suitcases full of nukes to complete the task, but Dern loses his cool, kills one of ’em with a shovel (his leg is hurt in the scuffle) and lets the others explode in a doomed greenhouse, then escapes past Saturn (“killing” one of his three drones, which gives him and the other drones more distress than the human deaths do). Interestingly, the submarine-style radio/radar silence of the title is never directly addressed in dialogue or on computer screens – it’s just inferred that Dern is making his escape, leaving the authorities to believe that his ship was destroyed. I’d give Trumbull and his writers (two of whom would later write The Deer Hunter, the other would become a major TV procedural-show writer/producer) credit for letting the audience add interpretation instead of overexplaining everything, but other evidence (like the blatant, subtext-killing Baez songs, the oversentimental but otherwise extremely simple robots and Dern’s confusing leg-injury subplot) would indicate bungled storytelling instead.

There’s not much suspense left after Dern has killed off his fellow astronauts. The movie tries to make us care when he’s joyriding his dune-buggy and injures a robot, and tries to make us believe that a botanist wouldn’t realize that plants need sunlight. But really it’s all build-up to the last five minutes, when he’s located and about to be “rescued”. He sets the sole working robot to the task of watching over the last garden dome, then jettisons it to safety and sets nukes to blow himself (and his rescuers?) into space-junk.

Part of the same financing program to let young filmmakers run wild on low-budget pictures, along with American Graffiti and The Last Movie. Sounds like a program they should’ve continued. Music by PDQ Bach under his real name.

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