Saturday, January 11, 2014

Silent Running (1972)

This is one of those movies that comes up when people discuss science fiction films of the 1970s. Lately I’ve seen some good reviews of it, some people even putting in their top five sci-fi films of all time. Now that gets my attention. So when it appeared on Netflix download, I had to check it out.

Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is an astronaut aboard the space ship Valley Forge. His mission for the past eight years was maintaining the flora and fauna preserved from earth inside of giant domes attached to the ship. Earth has lost all of its natural resources, and only on a fleet of ships like this have they been retained. The objective was to return them to earth when the planet was cleaned up and ready to have life on it.

Unfortunately orders come up to jettison and detonate all the domes and return to earth. No reason is given. But none is needed. Lowell can’t and won’t let that happen. He disobeys his orders and manages to save one dome, even if the rest of the crew has to die in the process. Now Lowell is stranded in space with his three robot pals and trying his best to keep life in the dome going strong. But will Lowell be able to maintain his Silent Running or is he a doomed man.

Good Points:
  • Some brilliant model work and visual effects for the era
  • Impressive production design giving the ship a lived in appearance
  • Contains some pretty intense moments in it

Bad Points:
  • Bruce Dern seems to be just a little too intense to be likable
  • Those musical montages with Joan Baez singing… um, yeah…
  • The message gets in the way of the movie

Visually this movie is really something else. I love the designs and execution of the ships, the robots, the interiors, everything. Obviously the film went on to influence other science fiction films afterward. But the heavy-handed approach to the material ends up hurting the end result. Bruce Dern often looks a couple fries short of a happy meal, keeping me from connecting to him and being more afraid for what he’s going to do next. The musical montages and the lack of explanation of certain key events pulled me out of the story. In the end, I can see why some folks might connect to this more than I did, but it is worth checking out.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 3
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.    


  1. I think Silent Running suffers a bit from the sign of the times when these type message films were made supposedly to expose "the system." But it's hard to get behind the Bruce Dern character who really is sort of a sociopath. I enjoyed the escapism, and the efx, but I think the story could have been worked out a bit better. When I thought of this movie, I also thought about the western, Unforgiven. There are similarities in both of the anti-hero characters of Eastwood and Dern, but we get behind Eastwood's character more. And I'm guessing that's because the character that Hackman plays is every bit as bad, but we don't get that in Silent Running.

    1. Wow, I didn't think of that connect with "Unforgiven". Good catch there.

      Yeah I think we are supposed to sympathize with Dern's character because he is sticking it to the man. But he really comes across as unstable. Even his final act seems to be driven by his guilt at killing his fellow astronauts, and crumbling under the desire to end it all. He's a really odd character and not one I found sympathetic. I think another pass of the script could have helped this film feel a little less preachy. Still I'm glad I've seen it. But I get the feeling that you may have had to have been there in 1972 to really enjoy it.

  2. I was there in 1972, and there really was a tendency among filmmakers to think (as you say about the makers of this flick) that being anti-establishment by itself was sufficient to make a character sympathetic, at least to a particular target audience. The messages were often heavy-handed, as in Getting Straight (1970). This annoyed me at the time even when I agreed with the messages, and often I can enjoy such movies better now that they aren't so Relevant. (Capital R intended.)

    I liked this one well enough in the day -- it was pretty well-produced scifi after all -- but I've never felt the urge to rewatch it. Maybe that says it all.

    1. Yeah, I'm not sure I'll revisit this one either. Compared to another 70's sci-fi, "Logan's Run". I found that to be much more engaging and the characters easier to identify with. It is heavy handed too, but it manages to work in spite of it.