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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Silent Running

Universal Studios kicked off 1972 with an A-level sci-fi, Silent Running (SR). It wasn't a mega-budget film (only a million dollars) nor was it a box office hit, due to some poor marketing by Universal. But SR was a significant film in many ways. More on that in the Notes section. Bruce Dern stars as the nerdy eco-vigilante in space. Almost stealing the show are the two "drone" robots he names Huey and Dewey. The nature-conservation story dominates to the point of being maudlin, but layers of dystopia run beneath that overt plot. Douglas Trumbull directs. SR was shot in the interior of the aircraft carrier Valley Forge, prior to her being scrapped.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Deep in space, several freighter ships carry sets of domed enclosures, housing earth plants and animals. Each freighter has a crew of only 4. They mostly tend themselves (biosphere-esque), but one of the crew aboard the freighter Valley Forge has become a nature lover. He plants flowers, talks to bunnies, etc. His 3 crew mates (still mostly shallow jerks) tease him and race electric carts over his flowers. Freeman (Dern) harangues them about the importance of saving the trees, etc. An order comes in from earth to jettison the domes, blow them up and return to earth for commercial cargo duty. Everyone is happy except Freeman. He loses his cool as domes are blown up. He fights with and kills one of his crewmen. He jettison's one of the domes with the other two crewmen in it, blowing them up. Freeman lies to his fleet commander about having some malfunctions. He powers up the engines, sending the Valley Forge on a trajectory that will go through Saturn's rings. His commanders don't think the ship will survive this. Freeman doesn't know either, but is just keen to escape with his one remaining dome of forest. The ship survives the rings, though one of the maintenance drones is lost. Freeman programs the two remaining drones (which he has renamed Huey and Dewey) to preform medical duties to fix his gashed leg (from the fight with John). He later programs them to play poker with him. He goes through various stages of loneliness, regrets, etc. He befriends the two remaining drones, naming them Huey and Dewey. After awhile, his forest is looking sickly. He eventually figures out that his increased distance from the sun was why. He sets up additional "sun" lamps. He then hears that a rescue mission found him after all, and will board him in a few hours. Knowing that his crimes will be discovered, he programs Dewey to tend the forest alone. The last dome is ejected without explosives. When the dome is safely clear, Freeman blows himself up, along with the ship. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The visuals are compelling and form an important link between 2001 and Star Wars. Both of those films' visual styles can be seen is SR. Dern actually does a good job of portraying the kaleidoscope of emotions Lowell goes through. The little robots are fascinating to watch, especially after you know there are people inside the shells.

Cultural Connection
The environmental movement was not new. Thoreau and Muir were early voices for preservation in the 19th century. Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring" (1962) added the prospect of doom if pollution and abuse continued unabated. But, environmentalism wasn't really mainstream until the late 60s, early 70s. The counter-culture was growing up too. Where early "hippies" were more self-centered and hedonist (free love! drugs!), as they matured, so did their pallet of concerns. SR was a poster-child film for the cause. It certainly brought the message into mainstream households.

Between 2001 and Star Wars -- SR forms a sort of bridge between the blockbuster sci-fi of the 60s, Stanley Kubrik's 2001 and the blockbuster of the 70s, Lucas/Spielberg's Star Wars. Douglas Trumbull worked on 2001 as an effects man. He directed SR. There are visual similarities. His father, Don, developed the drones for SR, then went on to do miniatures work in SW. Again, many visual similarities. John Dykstra did special photo effects (camera mechanicals for model shots) on SR. He was photo effects supervisor for SW. Viewers can see many similarities in the model/camera work -- such as the big-ship-fly-by. George Lucas drew his inspiration for R2D2 from SR's drones, Huey, Dewey and Louie.

Personable Bots -- One of SR's most memorable features was its small, personable robot "drones." Unlike the traditional Hollywood robot, they were small, unthreatening, and not humanoid in shape. Because of their short stature, and how Douglas Trumbull directed the shots, the three drones were highly sympathetic characters. As has been written in many places, the little drones were not animatronic, stop-motion, and certainly pre-CGI. Instead, they shells developed, in part, by Douglas Trumbull's father Don. Inside each was an actor who had no legs -- either from birth or from amputation. SR's little drones inspired Lucas for design for SW's R2D2 -- which also drew its "life" from its diminutive human actor inside: Kenny Baker. The two robots were similar enough in spirit, that Universal sued Fox over the rights, though Universal did not win the case.

Portrait Of A Killer -- Further beneath the enviro-activist (eco-terrorist?) layer of Dern's character are the rather chilling hallmarks of today's random killer. The pattern of a socially awkward and outcast individual getting upset over something, killing a bunch of people, then killing himself, has become too common. Lowell is a socially awkward loner who is becoming increasingly introverted and obsessed with a narrower part of his world. An external threat to his private world causes him to snap. He then kills -- first in hot blood, as in his fight with John, then in cold blood as the jettisons Andy and Monty. Symbolic of his mental illness, he adopts the drones as replacements for the crew mates he's killed, talking to them, programming them to play cards with him, etc., like his human friends had. In his eulogy for John, his fractured mental state shows. He tearfully laments that he actually liked them (even though he killed them). In the end, when the authorities are closing in (the rescue ship finds him) and his crimes about to be discovered, he kills himself. A pattern seen too often lately, but captured in 1972 in SR.

Progress? -- For a change, it wasn't a nuclear war which devastated the surface of the earth. It was "progress" in the form of a rampant shopping-mall mentality. A hinted-at backstory in SR is that human civilization had moved "forward" to where nature was not only unnecessary, it was also inconvenient. Who wants all that frigid-winter, sweltering-summer stuff? Peoples' (presumed) "right" to be comfortable trumped all. Earth was made into a global-scale shopping mall with a steady 75 degree dry climate. With food replicator technology, mankind no longer needed a healthy nature to survive, so she was shipped off to storage in deep space. This forms a sort of subtle technophobia message within SR. "Progress" might actually be a bad thing.  In a way, the order to jettison the domes so the ships could resume "commerce" was a mini-replay analogy of what (presumably) happened long ago on earth.

Plot Holes? -- Some reviewers complain plot holes in SR. Two "holes" recur.
Hole One: Why are the last of Earth's forests stored way out near Saturn? Earth orbit would be more efficient and logical. --- Possible Answers: The original story was cast as a "first contact" with aliens story. They find the floating dome with Dewey -- Lowell's message in a bottle. For that, they needed to be far from Earth. Otherwise, they'd just find Earth. The aliens were cut from the story. Another possibility is a political motive. What if the last remnants of nature had to be stored far away from Earth to protect them from the short term whims of developers, or the caprice of politicians?
Hole Two: Why would a plant biologist fail to realize immediately that his forest was wilting from lack of sunlight? It's too basic to have missed for so long.
--- Possible Answer: It could be a case of professional tunnel-vision. A base assumption is incorrect, but goes unquestioned, so subsequent theories make sense. An example of this was in the Three-MIle-Island disaster. Engineers on duty assumed that an "off" indicator light meant a safety valve was closed (which it normally would), when in fact, it was stuck open. All other indicators suggested the valve was open, but since the professionals never questioned their first assumption, time was wasted searching for other possible causes of the trouble. So, in SR, since the overhead lights in the dome were usually enough to supplement the sun (and they were still on), Freeman could have assumed it had to be something else, something bacterial, etc.

Bottom line? SR is well worth the time to seek out and watch. The visual effects are well done, such that they age well. Dern's acting as the nerdy, mentally unstable, lonely astronaut is almost more relevant to today than 1972. The conservation message is so thick as to be annoying. Joan Baez's songs give the film a definite "hippy" era flavor that doesn't age as well. "...earth between my toes and flowers in my hair...when we lay, among the ferns..." The eco-nagging aside, SR should be on all sci-fi fans' list of films to have watched.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

I catch this one every once in a while. I have to admit, Bruce Dern's character, Freeman (interesting choice of a name) is creepy. He's definitely got a lot more folks like him today than there used to be in the early 70's. The plot hole of Saturn orbit has always bothered me as well, but I strike it up to just bad writing. As far as Freeman's biologist nature goes, I got the impression he was either a forest ranger (without a biology degree) or a space trucker with a green heart. I'm presently leaning toward the latter, but next time I watch it, I'll probably change my mind again. Interestingly enough, the models were reused by Dykstra in Battlestar Galactica.