Monday, January 20, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Silent Running" (1972)

Hollywood briefly flirted with counter-culture ideas and stories during the late 1960s and early '70s, making films that would later be described as "trippy." Not very many of these movies were especially good, but they often had an outsize effect on influencing future movies and filmmakers.

It's hard not to look at 1972's "Silent Running" and see similarities with the "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" feature films. The use of "drones," or little robot servants, by the space-faring humans would seem to have inspired George Lucas in his robot designs, which he referred to as droids. The drones in "Silent Running" -- at first called simply 1, 2 and 3 but later redubbed Huey, Louie and Dewey -- were portrayed by actors without legs, who used their hands to move around.

The drones aren't particularly convincing as characters, since they lack a definable "face" for the audience to relate to, and don't even appear to have a discernible camera eye. There's something that looks like a large camera flash bulb in the upper right, and they can't even properly talk other than hissing by venting some of their gizmos.

By the time you are reading this, the Oscar nominations will be out and it seems a certainty that Bruce Dern will receive a Best Actor nod for his subtle, powerful work in "Nebraska." The studio system never quite knew what to do with the odd duck thespian, who had leading-man looks and acting chops but naturally seemed to migrate to dark supporting roles. His last Oscar nomination was for 1978's "Coming Home."

Here Dern plays Lowell, the resident botanist on a space mission to preserve the last of Earth's plant life, housed in massive bio-domes aboard several ships. It's sort of the reverse scenario of "Wall-E," where instead of the humans leaving the planet until it's inhabitable again, here the people wait planetside for the flora to be reconstituted enough to be viable on a large scale again.

Sharing an enormous ship with three other men, Lowell is the self-imposed outcast, preferring to spend his time inside the bio-dome forests rather than playing cards and other games with the rest of the crew. He wears long flowing robes instead of the efficient space jumpsuits the others favor, and keeps his hair long and his feet bare. Lowell can't stand the synthesized food the other guys live on, opting for fresh fruits and vegetables he's grown himself.

Though it's never explicitly stated, it seems clear Lowell is a vegetarian. Though there are some animals in the bio-domes, they're there mostly for ecological reasons rather than to be hunted for game.

When the commanders order the domes to be ejected into space and blown up with nuclear weapons, Lowell rebels, killing his crew-mates and faking the destruction of his ship, the Valley Forge. It works for awhile, but eventually the other ships discover him, forcing Lowell to commit suicide -- but not before ejecting the last dome with one of his drones set as its permanent caretaker.

It's notable that as soon as Lowell commits his treason, he begins to behave more and more like the men he loathed. He starts eating the synthesized food, lets his living areas grow unclean, and even takes to zipping around in the little transport vehicles the other crew used to terrorize him in.

Director Douglas Trumball was known as the special effects creator for "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "The Andromeda Strain," contributing much to the look and success of those films. "Silent Running" was an original screenplay by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino ("The Deer Hunter") and Steven Bochco, best known for TV cop dramas "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue."

It's a really kooky script, more an idea for a movie than a fully fleshed-out one. I've never quote figured out what the title refers to -- the fact that the ships operate silently in space? Or that the lonely Lowell traverses the corridors of his doomed craft with no one to talk to?

"Silent Running" has gained cult status as an offbeat, innovative progenitor to late, better sci-fi flicks. The hippy-dippy aspects are badly dated, including some Joan Baez I-love-nature songs that exist as their own parody. (Really? Did anyone ever think that shrill warbling sounded pleasing to the ear?)

I found the film strange and off-putting, but Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was our cinematic obsession with space stories.

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