Dir. Douglas Trumbull
Silent Running starts off feeling like a precursor to Pixar’s Wall-E. After all, just like Wall-E there’s a strong environmental message, a pair of care-taking robots, and humans that have become so dependent on technology that they have become completely ignorant of the most basic facts about nature. Both are great films in their own right, but Silent Running isn’t constrained by the family-friendly conventions that Disney films are required to have. This was a film made back in a time when sci-fi films didn’t need neon signs or dirt scattered everywhere to be dark. The story by itself managed to be dark enough. (Although, ironically, Director Douglas Trumball worked on visual effects for both squeaky clean 2001: A Space Odyssey and grimy Blade Runner)
Silent Running may look like a brainy science fiction movie like 2001, but its story is very simplistic. In fact, the entire movie feels very much like a short story. There are few characters, few sets, and a clear moral. That’s not to say that the message isn’t a good one, and even years after it’s been made, it still deserves some thought.
The film takes place on a space craft with several bio domes connected to it. Our main protagonist is a man named Lowell, who’s been working for 8 years on recreating the Earth’s lost fauna. It would seem that all, if not most, plant life on Earth has been destroyed. Lowell is part of a project to grow it back. His human companions are a raucous bunch that don’t really get his strange obsession with nature and like to race through his forests on go-carts. Like an old man telling youngsters to get off his lawn, he throws his gardening tools at them. They’ve only been on the ship for about 6 months and they share a love/hate relationship with the tree hugger. Lowell manages to tolerate them for a while and even brags about how he’ll someday lead a project to restore all the parks on Earth in an obvious bit of foreshadowing.
Not long afterwards, the project is cancelled, all of the forests on the ship are ordered to be destroyed, and Lowell isn’t too happy. Will he let 8 years of work go to waste, or will he betray his crew members, and try to save the trees? What happens next isn’t too hard to figure out.
We’re given one very emotional scene very early on where Lowell gives an incredibly Hallmarkish hippy rant. This monologue would be unbearable, if not for the fact that we can really feel Lowell’s frustration. He seems convincing enough in his arguments, but he’s faced up against a crew that needs to work to make a living. Lowell has his values, and they have theirs. This is really the big dilemma of the whole movie, since it’s difficult to decide who’s more right or who’s more wrong.
What makes Lowell so likeable as a character is that he has a such a sharply contrasting dichotomy about him. On the one hand, he has a gentle and nourishing side, but on the other, he can also be aggressive and deceitful, like a human version of HAL 9000.
As we see later on, he manages to adopt many of the flaws that he once accused his other crew members of having. We can see this hypocrisy about him as not only being a subtle hint of his own guilt, but also his ultimate realization that he shouldn’t have been so against humanity when he himself is only human.
At the end of the movie, there’s a conflict that occurs where the plants in Lowell’s forest start dying. He only manages to figure at the very end that the plants are dying because there’s no sunlight. I think this can be interpreted as one of two different ways:
2. What I really think the writer’s intended to do with this was actually create an interesting metaphor. I think they wanted to show that Lowell had become so far removed from the nature he was fighting to protect that he even began to forget the basics of life. The fact that plants need sunlight is such a fundamental thing, but his mind had become so muddled that he became unable to see his present situation clearly.