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<i>Silent Running</i> poster
Silent Running was not necessarily a positive movie in terms of liberal support for space exploration and colonization.

Silent Running, running deeper

Reading Dwayne Day’s review and commentary on the 1972 science fiction film Silent Running (see “The green green grass of Earth”, The Space Review, March 2, 2009) provoked a number of thoughts that I felt compelled to share about this story and its themes. In particular, I am not certain if the makers of Silent Running truly grasped the deeper implications of what they were saying to their audience, especially their contemporary one, and the implications it may have had on attitudes towards humanity’s presence in space.

First off, I must disagree with Dr. Day’s assessment that the period between 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 and the first Star Wars film nearly one decade later was a cinematic “wasteland” for science fiction. Of course there were some clunkers and I honestly doubt any science fiction film will ever match or surpass 2001, but that era between the late 1960s and early 1970s had some of the most intelligent and thought-provoking SF films ever made before or since.

Yes, Silent Running is definitely preaching to its audience. There is nothing terribly subtle about most of this film.

Among the best of this era were, in alphabetical order, The Andromeda Strain, A Boy and His Dog, A Clockwork Orange, Dark Star, The Forbin Project, The Omega Man, Rollerball, Solaris, Soylent Green, THX-1138, and Zardoz. These films represent the new freedoms felt by the 1960s generation in expression and experimentation held back by the more conservative ages before then. They also showed what could be done with—or in spite of—a low budget and pre-computerized special effects. As an example, Dark Star cost only $35,000 to make in 1974, yet this satire had dozens of concepts to contemplate, as well as being genuinely entertaining.

The true science fiction wasteland in terms of well written and intelligent plots and good acting began when the first Star Wars film came on the scene in 1977. This creation of George Lucas, who had ironically just a few years earlier made the cerebral and socially relevant THX-1138, brought about the era of science fiction films that were long on budgets and special effects while short on deep plots and meaningful ideas. With relatively few exceptions compared to that golden time of which Silent Running was a part, the Star Wars-type science fiction film has not left the cinema and will likely be with us for as long as the cinema lasts. Perhaps the independent film industry will bring back the meaningful, intelligent science fiction film, but even so-called low budget films are rather expensive to make these days and require at least one major studio to be properly distributed to make a profit.

Now to the meat of this piece: What exactly was being said in Silent Running and what are the vastly wider implications for the very culture it is preaching to?

Yes, Silent Running is definitely preaching to its audience. There is nothing terribly subtle about most of this film. Our protagonist, played by the unsubtle actor Bruce Dern—who goes by the very unsubtle name of Freeman Lowell—does not talk with his fellow crewmembers aboard the spaceship Valley Forge (another heavy duty name), he talks at them, chiding them and society as a whole for not being fellow tree huggers. This is especially notable when it is revealed early in the film that there are likely no tree huggers left on the planet Earth, as global mismanagement has forced the world’s remaining ecosystems into giant geodesic domes aboard long space freighters out by the gas giant world of Saturn.

As the ringed planet is about 1.4 billion kilometers from the Sun, one might think having these spaceships placed in a wee bit closer and warmer solar orbit for the benefit of their plant and animal cargoes would be more sensible. However, the director of Silent Running, veteran special effects expert Douglas Trumbull, wanted to “conquer” Saturn and its system of rings in particular by being able to reproduce it realistically enough on the big screen. This was something Trumbull had been unable to accomplish while working on 2001: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick, and why the USS Discovery ended up at Jupiter instead of its neighboring ringed world as in the Arthur C. Clarke novel.

So in the world of Silent Running, which incidentally takes place at the turn of the 21st Century (some sources give the exact year as 2008), there are no forests or presumably any other kind of environments with plants and animals left on Earth. However, judging by the crew of the Valley Forge and the voices of several men on the other spaceships undertaking the same mission, only Freeman is visibly distressed by the loss of tall trees and fields of green grass.

On this “new” Earth, the temperature everywhere is stated as being 75 degrees Fahrenheit, perhaps due to global warming. There is apparently no more unemployment and disease and poverty are almost things of the past. Judging by the fact that all the life-carrying spaceships have American names and American corporate logos are prevalent on the Valley Forge, it would be logical to assume that the United States industrial complex essentially dominates the world and presumably caused the loss of Earth’s ecosystem in the first place as they strove to make a buck.

The message Freeman was advocating—to return to nature before we lose our humanity—was too late even in 1972, let alone 2009 and beyond.

The fact that the space freighters are later ordered to dispose of their living cargoes (with nuclear bombs no less, yet another very unsubtle message) and be returned to commercial service, in contrast (and opposition?) to the earlier heard platitudes of the President of the United States hoping the forests can be preserved until Earth is ready to receive them again, gives even more evidence that national governments in this era bow to the wishes of the corporations, much as corporations took over from failing governments in the future world of the 1975 film Rollerball.

In Silent Running, one is supposed to feel that what has been done to our planet by industrial and social neglect is awful and that Freeman is the last man who offers sense and hope for humanity’s future on Earth.

This situation has left Freeman in a near-constant state of misery and even downright unpleasantness at times. Modern people in the industrial nations want a comfortable and safe world —and that is just what everyone seems to be getting in Silent Running. The trees and animals seem to mean very little to everyone but Freeman. His crewmates even find it odd that he eats food naturally grown in the spaceship’s biodomes rather than the processed stuff that is dispensed via machine aboard the Valley Forge. Freeman is far more of a strange fool and a throwback to his fellow humans in this new culture than any kind of a hero.

We are supposed to find Freeman’s companions (using the term very loosely here) to be sadly ignorant and a bit repellant, unaware of what they and their children will be losing forever.

But is this really the case? The other three men on the Valley Forge are not quite the blue collar rednecks that Trumbull presumably wanted us to see them as. Judging by their appearances and behaviors, it is Bruce Dern’s character who comes across as unkempt and wild, perhaps even dangerous (which later turns out to be all too true for the three humans). The fact that the other crewmen have not locked up Freeman or ejected him out an airlock into space after the way he incessantly preaches at them and rejects their occasional overtures of sympathy shows some fair restraint in their characters. Or at the very least, they see Freeman as much more of an annoyance than a threat.

The pioneering American environmentalist Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) once said “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” words that Freeman Lowell would no doubt strongly agree with. But will that always be true, especially for future humanity as it evolves and eventually spreads into space?

Humans may at heart be just a higher order of primate, but we have also created a technological civilization that is expanding and developing every day. Individuals like Freeman may want to abandon it, but that is virtually impossible for the whole society without devastating consequences for the species. We have gone too far in our technological development to just suddenly revert back to living in the wild. Many might think it would be a paradise, but there was a good reason why so few people lived past 30 or 40 years of age in premodern times.

I am not necessarily saying or advocating that the world should become like the one in Silent Running. But our civilization is growing, not shrinking. Humanity will soon be expanding into space on a permanent basis, where the residents of the solar system will have to live in artificial environments, even though they may have greenhouses and pets. Terraforming other worlds may also happen some day, but that will not be a part of the near-term future.

The message Freeman was advocating—to return to nature before we lose our humanity—was too late even in 1972, let alone 2009 and beyond. Society as a whole cannot go back to the cave and the trees; if it does that will only happen because some terrible disaster has befallen us.

We may have some of the “primitive savage” still in us, but we are now evolving towards a new a different species thanks in no small part to the technologies that came from our minds and fashioned by our hands. We cannot just ignore society and run away from what we have created across this planet and even beyond to a relatively small degree. Despite what some might have us believe, being technological does not equate to being soulless and inhuman. It is in fact the newest manifestation of our species, one which will transform and ultimately save us from extinction if we do not abuse or mishandle it.

The world of Silent Running will likely never come to pass. So long as Earth exists there will always be a variety of life forms on it in many places. The messages in Silent Running were just too extreme and preachy, a product of their time.

Now note this does not mean I did not enjoy or admire the film despite its flaws. Like many science fiction films of its time, Silent Running does keep you focused and even sympathetic to the plights of Freeman and his later robot companions, Huey, Dewey, and Louie. The film is a product of its era and its makers certainly meant well. But they did not and perhaps could not look at the long-term big picture of what they were implying for humanity.

Dr. Day refers to Silent Running as a liberal science fiction film. That is certainly true, but not necessarily a positive one in terms of liberal support for space exploration and colonization.

In the Silent Running world, space is indeed the last refuge for Earth’s flora and fauna, being stored inside some Buckminster Fuller geodesic domes way out by Saturn with the initial hope of some day returning them to their places of origin to save the planet and the human race in particular. But with the passage of time, the people occupying Earth are now content with their comfortable culture (making them vulnerable to totalitarian rule?) and no longer see or appreciate the value of the living cargo aboard the Valley Forge and other similar ships. Their society is no doubt a very artificial one, turning them artificial in the process. They do not even appreciate being out in space, even near something as incredible and beautiful as the planet Saturn, if the actions of the Valley Forge crew are any indication.

Silent Running is a liberal science fiction film, but not necessarily a positive one in terms of liberal support for space exploration and colonization.

Having plants and animals aboard a collection of spaceships way out in deep space is the ultimate sign to anyone of a naturalist bent that things have gone terribly wrong with existence. Most people tend to see Earth and space as separate things, despite the fact that our planet is a definite part of the Universe. The message being given in Silent Running is that having organisms in space aboard a technological “prison” is bad and only returning to Mother Earth can redeem the human species. My strong feeling is that this message is what the audiences who saw the film in 1972 and afterwards got stuck in their brains; this is why we continue to hear the tired (and wrong) old mantra of “Why do we spend money on space when we need it hear on Earth?”

I am not anti-nature. What I am, though, is against extreme negative attitudes towards the good aspects of progress. Space is a natural and important area for our development as a species and especially as a society. We cannot keep growing on our one planet and expect civilization to remain as it is now. All living creatures move on to new territories when their resources run low or something changes that necessitates their moving on. Otherwise they die out. We have the knowledge and ability to save ourselves from stagnation and extinction, and that place is in the vast territories and resources of space.

We are not going to remain the creatures we are now. Civilization has already placed us on a path to a new way of being, thinking, and doing that we cannot abandon without terrible consequences for all of us.

British science fiction author H. G. Wells was not exaggerating in the least when one of his characters says at the end of the 1936 science fiction film Things to Come that it is “all the Universe—or nothing!” when it comes to our future. We cannot hope to remain as we are and yet somehow expect civilization to carry on as it has been. Expansion into the realm of space is neither an option nor a luxury but mandatory for our survival and growth. As Russian space pioneer Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky once famously said and every space advocate knows: “A planet is the cradle of mind, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.”

So watch Silent Running and enjoy this slice of the 1960s generation and the budding ecological movement as perhaps historical entertainment. Just keep in mind that Earth and space are not really divided worlds and that we can and eventually must belong to both.