Silent Running (1971)
There are very few things that made me cry as a child (I was one of those kids). But there is one movie, one Sci-Fi movie, that did so and stayed with me for long time afterwards. ‘Silent Running’ was released in 1971, appeared on TV in the early 1980s, and has rarely been seen since. Strangely so since its central message probably has more resonance today than it did even back in the oil-starved, ice age worrying 1970s.
The story turns around a future where all plant life on Earth is destroyed and what survives is housed in vast greenhouse-like domes attached to spacecraft, with the plan that they are to be eventually used for the reforestation of the planet Earth. The central character, Freeman Lowell (played by a brilliant, edgy Bruce Dern), is a botanist devoted to his job and to the millions of trees and plants in his care. When new orders come from Earth that the plan is to be abandoned and that the domes must be jettisoned and destroyed so that the spacecraft can be freed up for commercial use, Lowell eventually rebels in a desperate attempt to save the domes. And that’s it. Well no, not really. For the movie is much more than that.
Faced with a real moral dilemma, his career, his submission to rules and authority, even the safety or lives of others versus his deeply held beliefs, his ideas of right and wrong, Lowell must choose and he does so with tragic results. In the end it is left up to the audience to decide whether or not he was justified in his eventual actions. There is no easy morality here, and Lowell is no easy character to like, and notions of right and wrong become quickly blurred.
Though well directed, with nicely matched music, good editing and overall excellent acting, time has not been entirely kind to ‘Silent Running’. The specail effects don’t look so special anymore, the sets and clothes and much of the supposed future technology looks dated and very 1970s (as do the hairdos). The film has a feel of something from way-back-when and it is the central storyline, and a never better Bruce Dern , that really does carry it.
Now of course you’re wondering, where’s the bit that made me cry? Well, this movie does have a sort of tragic-happy ending, one that is genuinely moving. But as for the particular scene that upset me so much so long ago, I’ll admit as an adult its not as effecting as I once thought it but the only way you’re going to guess is by taking a visit yourself to the silent forests beneath the stars. One clue though – look out for three wobbly little characters by the names of Huey, Dewey, and Louie.