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Silent Running poster
Silent Running is the rare case of a science fiction movie with a liberal point of view.

The green green grass of Earth

It takes a special kind of man to enjoy Joan Baez or Bruce Dern. I am not that man. Nevertheless, I’ve watched the 1972 movie Silent Running that features both of them and found it (barely) tolerable. It is also one of the few examples of a science fiction movie with a liberal message and a liberal point of view.

Why did I watch it? Because I have an interest in depictions of near-future science fiction. I’ve reviewed a number of examples in The Space Review, from some excellent anime series (Cowboy Bebop, Freedom, Planetes), some mediocre but visually interesting ones (Moonlight Mile) to some relatively okay Hollywood films (2010 and Capricorn One). Because I don’t have time to read books anymore, I haven’t reviewed any of the more prolific near-future science fiction novels, even though there are a lot of interesting choices (Stephen Baxter’s Voyage, Ben Bova’s Mars series, Allen Steele’s numerous often incredibly fun novels, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red/Green/Blue Mars series, and Judith Reeves-Stevens and Garfield Reeves-Stevens’ Freefall). I have an interest in near-future science fiction because the space program that we’re currently stuck with is not the space program that I want, and therefore I have to satisfy my unfulfilled dreams with fiction. Others turn to alcohol, or blogging.

I have an interest in near-future science fiction because the space program that we’re currently stuck with is not the space program that I want, and therefore I have to satisfy my unfulfilled dreams with fiction.

That led me to watch Silent Running, which is occasionally shown on cable these days, but is largely forgotten. The movie dates from an awkward period in American cinematography, between 1968 and Stanley Kubrick’s magisterial 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 1977, with the premier of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Those latter movies changed American cinema, but their major effect on science fiction was that they demonstrated it could be highly profitable. Star Wars and Close Encounters were followed by Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979 and then Blade Runner in 1982, which changed the look and feel of science fiction movies substantially. That was a highly productive five-year period for science fiction film, following on ten years of a wasteland.

There are not a lot of watchable science fiction films in that wasteland. The seventies sucked in many ways, and this was merely one of them. Only a few science fiction films from that era are even memorable, let alone watchable. Logan’s Run only makes the cut because the lovely Jenny Agutter has a cute nose. Silent Running also makes that list, barely, but one of the factors that puts it on the list is its role in bridging the transition from the antiseptic depiction of the future in 2001 to the grittier versions that followed. But despite its name, it doesn’t run, it crawls across that bridge.

How’s that for a ringing endorsement?

Adrift at Saturn’s rings

Silent Running is the story of a botanist named Freeman Lowell who lives aboard the American Airlines Space Freighter USS Valley Forge along with three other “astronauts” who are little more than maintenance men. The Valley Forge and several of her sister ships are in orbit out past Saturn, which seems to be a rather bad location for them considering that the ships haul several large greenhouses that contain what we are told are the last vestiges of Earth’s forests. Earth is apparently vastly overpopulated and polluted and not a very pleasant place to live. The population survives under geodesic domes like those on the Valley Forge, except without the plants. Nevertheless, Lowell’s fellow astronauts want to return there from what they consider to be boring and unimportant duty maintaining the ship. They kid Lowell for eating food that comes out of the dirt rather than a machine.

Lowell, however, is happy on the Valley Forge, where he tends to the plants like an obsessive gardener. He’s increasingly alienated from his crewmates and hostile toward them. He’s also convinced that Earth will recreate its parks and forests and place him in charge.

One day the word comes from Earth that the ships are needed back home, their biopreservation mission is over, and they are ordered to dump—and nuke—the greenhouses and head back to the polluted third rock from the sun. Lowell protests the decision and becomes increasingly distraught as his crewmates nuke four of the greenhouses with nihilistic glee. He kills off two of his three crewmates by trapping them in one of the jettisoned domes, and fights and kills the third, getting injured in the process. He is left with only the three robots, whom he names Huey, Dewey, and Louie. The ship flies through Saturn’s rings—killing Louie—and Lowell thinks he has escaped. But his forest starts dying, which causes him to slip into deep depression. When he hears from a rescue mission sent to save him, he realizes that the forest has lacked sunlight and quickly rigs additional lighting. He finally releases the only remaining greenhouse to exist on its own, tended by the Huey robot. Sitting alone in the empty ship with Dewey, he comments that as a child he once wrote his name and address on a piece of paper in a bottle and tossed it into the ocean, but never knew what happened to it. Then he blows up the ship. And if you are fast enough at hitting the mute button, you will not hear Joan Baez’s warbling singing.

From white to green

Silent Running was directed by Douglas Trumbull, one of the founding fathers of modern, pre-computer-generated, special effects. Trumbull was responsible for the psychedelic stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey and his reputation from that film allowed him to make Silent Running.

Silent Running was one of five movies made on a shoestring budget and with no studio interference as part of a project by Universal Studios to see if they could repeat the success of Easy Rider. Of the five films, George Lucas’ American Graffiti was the most famous. Trumbull had no experience directing, however, and it shows in the final product. Trumbull did have a clever idea: in order to keep costs down, he shot much of the film on the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge, which launched in 1944, served as a helicopter assault ship in Vietnam, and decommissioned in 1970. The Valley Forge was named after a national park in Pennsylvania, so it was also a perfect name for the spaceship. When Trumbull shot the film in early 1971 the Valley Forge was then moored at Long Beach Naval Station, awaiting scrapping, and he was able to get the ship cheap even though he had to bring in power and water on his own. Trumbull was forced into this arrangement, but it served him well. The tight confines of the former naval vessel make the ship look like a real spaceship, solid and practical.

USS Valley Forge
The USS Valley Forge, which was used to film the scenes of the shaceship Valley Forge for the movie Silent Running. (credit: US Navy)

Trumbull has said that his film was in many ways a reaction to 2001’s sterile world. He wanted astronauts with emotions, and technology that was humanizing and looked used. He noted that most movie robots looked humanoid and acted malevolent, and he wanted robots that were not anthropomorphic in any way and simply performed maintenance. So the spaceships keep Earth’s few remaining plants alive, and the robots tend to the environment rather than kill the humans—unlike 2001, the machines are not sucking the life out of humanity, they’re preserving what little is left of it. And Bruce Dern’s Freeman Lowell is so overflowing with tree-hugging… humanism that it gets a little hard to take (more on that in a moment).

Arthur C. Clarke’s original story for 2001 had the action taking place in orbit around Saturn, but director Stanley Kubrick was concerned that it would be impossible to make Saturn’s rings look realistic, so he set the action in orbit around Jupiter. When Trumbull got the chance to make his own film, he put his spaceships at Saturn, just to show that he could do it.

The look and feel of the movie was new, and considering the films that came after it, it is clear that Silent Running led later moviemakers to design a future that wasn’t all gleaming white plastic.

The special effects are good for the day, but not exactly memorable. The long spindly spaceships with their greenhouses inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes are practical, but not pretty. Trumbull built a 25-foot-long [7.6-meter-long] model of the ship, and specifically designed it without any obvious means of propulsion. More interesting are the three robots, who were operated from inside by multiple amputee actors. They represent one of the first times that robots are presented on film as practical machines, rather than characters in a story.

The look and feel of the movie was new, and considering the films that came after it, it is clear that Silent Running led later moviemakers to design a future that wasn’t all gleaming white plastic. Star Wars was dirty and gritty. Alien’s spaceship was cramped and utilitarian, and looked even more like a space freighter than the Valley Forge. The characters in these later films were not the best that NASA or Starfleet could produce, but working class schmucks.

But Bruce Dern’s performance is also noteworthy. Before this film, Dern had played baddies and longhairs in Westerns and biker movies—he even played the character “Long Hair” in his prior movie The Cowboys, where he earned hate from fans for gunning down John Wayne. Silent Running was his first lead role, and it’s a performance that never got the respect that it deserved, largely because it appeared in a low-budget science fiction film. As Kim Newman wrote in the December issue of Empire magazine, had Lowell been in a foxhole or a mental hospital, Dern might have gotten an Oscar nomination. This movie did not exactly make him a big name star, but it earned him some respect in Hollywood, and a change in the roles he was offered.

The DVD contains a number of interesting extras, including a 1971 documentary about the making of the film and some more recent interviews with Trumbull and Dern. Dern was an avid runner and told the story about how he kept getting stopped by the Shore Patrol on the naval station because of his long hair. Finally he resorted to running around the Valley Forge’s flight deck.

Although you would expect the film’s hippie protagonist and tree-loving hero to be more, well, heroic, Dern’s Freeman Lowell is hard to like. He’s a loner, a bit of a misanthrope who prefers his trees to his fellow humans. He’s also borderline nuts. Even the robots are wary of him. And after he has killed his three crewmates, Lowell slips into depression, less over their deaths than the dying forest. Dern said that he played Freeman Lowell as passionate, not nuts, but it is a fine line between obsession and insanity, and Lowell is clearly straddling it. The film raises a point that it never really answers: was it right to kill three humans to save the last remaining forest?

And this is where the film dips its toe into the deep end and exhibits greater sophistication than many critics give it credit for. It is easy to dismiss Silent Running as a weepy eco-propaganda film about a sensitive tree-hugging hippie who is dedicated to saving the forests. But Dern does not play the character of Freeman Lowell as a hero. We’re not supposed to like him.

The green green grass of distant space

Silent Running is unique as one of the first films with an environmental message. But for those interested in spaceflight, the movie is equally notable for being a rare science fiction movie with an overtly liberal pro-space message. It was written at a time when the environmental movement was first gaining hold: the first Earth Day took place in April 1970.

Although there are plenty of conservative/libertarian pro-space enthusiasts vocally advocating some kind of manifest destiny, conquest-of-space philosophy, there is very little liberal pro-space activism. That’s not to say that there are no liberal space enthusiasts, only that they don’t infuse their politics into their space advocacy, and they certainly are not as strident as the libertarians.

Back in the 1970s there were liberals who were pro-space… Spaceflight was seen by some not as a distraction from Earth’s problems, but a solution to at least some of them.

American liberalism contains a strain of antipathy towards technology, which is viewed by some as having negative consequences. Because of this, it is easy to understand why there is greater liberal opposition, or at least indifference, to spaceflight than there is from the other end of the political spectrum. At best, many liberals view spaceflight as an unnecessary distraction, studying the planets and the stars rather than spending the money on human problems on our own planet.

But that does not mean that there is no liberal pro-space viewpoint. Back in the 1970s there were liberals who were pro-space, and connections between the pro-space movement and left-leaning social networks like The WELL (which originally stood for the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link). Spaceflight was seen by some not as a distraction from Earth’s problems, but a solution to at least some of them—energy generation or technology spinoffs were two common causes that appealed to pro-spacers on the American left.

In fact, in the modern interview with Trumbull, apparently conducted in 2001, Trumbull says that his inspiration for the movie came from the fact that light pollution and smog in Los Angeles had caused people to become disconnected from the stars that they could no longer see. In his view, the Earth’s environment was directly connected to how we view the universe, so an ecological movie set out in space seemed like a natural way to connect these issues—space saves the environment even though the environment was destroying our view of space.

Now that we have a Democratic president and Congress, and are entering what is clearly a new era of government spending, it will be interesting to see if any filmmakers will make new connections between space and the environment, and liberal causes. Fortunately, one thing we can be assured of is that the soundtrack for this new age probably won’t include Joan Baez.