Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Silent Running

Lowdown: The future of earth’s biodiversity is in orbit around Saturn.
Today, Douglas Trumbull is famous mostly for doing the special effects on Blade Runner, one of the most visionary films ever (at least as far as influencing other films is concerned). Before his work on Blade Runner (and afterwards too, for that matter), Trumbull has directed a few films of his own. It was his Blade Runner reputation that made me record Silent Running, his 1972 director’s debut, when it was aired by ABC a few months ago.
The entire Silent Running film takes place on board of a spaceship manned by four astronauts. Through their misadventures on the ship and through dialog we learn that this American Airlines spacecraft is harboring earth’s last remaining samples of natural flora and fauna. The earth is now completely under humanity’s control: the temperature is fixed, and the food is artificial, and everyone is so happy with this state of affairs that the planet's only natural remnants have been cast out into space for safety keeping as well as to keep it out of humanity’s way.
After setting things up, Silent Running turns to revolve around one of the astronauts. He’s unique: he likes nature and dislikes the artificiality that prevails. When company orders arrive, asking the crew to destroy their cargo and return to earth, he’s the only one that’s unhappy to go back home. But what can one man do to fix things up?
Silent Running starts very well, with a hardcore science fiction approach and an interesting, if somewhat dated, setting. It also ends well. The problem is the middle section, where the film strays too much off its basic stance: For example, in a scene where the ship “falls towards Saturn”, a rather psychedelic scene that serves for nothing more than allowing Trumbull to show off with his special effects (at least they’re not digital). And then there is the long messing about with the ship’s drones, cutie-cutie robots that look a lot like WALL-E and behave the same, too; they’re way too childish for a film of such serious agenda. They overstay their welcome and end up tiring.
Oh, did I mention WALL-E? The main thing a contemporary viewer will take out of Silent Running are the obvious similarities between this one and WALL-E. It’s everywhere: the setup (a spaceship where the last non artificial living thing is located), the orbiting of Saturn, and of course – the more human than human drones that not only look very similar but also do the exact same things. There can be no doubt about it: WALL-E had to be inspired by Silent Running.
Given the similarities between the two, which one do I call better? Well, I didn’t like WALL-E for a start, but I have my reservations with Silent Running too. Both films can be childish, although with WALL-E this is an end to end thing whereas Silent Running has a solid core to rely on. Both films have their share of bullshit, as with locating the ships next to Saturn of all places. For me, things come down to WALL-E’s patronizing approach, that regular Disney trademarked spoon feeding the audience type feeling, that is far from dominant in Silent Running. That, and the avoidance of a cheesy ending, win me over to Silent Running’s side.
Soundtrack wise, Silent Running features songs by Joan Baez. How can I put it diplomatically? What might have sounded nice and touchy back when this film was made sounds more like a joke now. Definitely outdated!
When all is said and done, one thing has to be said in favor of Silent Running: It is probably among the first films, if not the first, to run with such a pro environment agenda. I find it amazing that people with such foresight have been living amongst us for more than thirty years before An Inconvenient Truth came along. Yet we did nothing with their foresight.
Best scene: The crew (or rather, most of it) receives the cheerfully dictated order to terminate their cargo with much cheering.
Overall: Showing its age and deficient but carrying a good idea at its core, Silent Running ends up with 3 stars out of 5.

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