Sunday, December 05, 2010

Film Review: Silent Running (1972)

Space hippie Bruce Dern is a scientist working aboard the Valley Forge, a vessel designed to carry a number of geodesic domes containing plant life which Dern cultivates, ultimately hoping to return with the plants so that they can restore greenery to a now barren Earth. When Dern learns that their mission has been terminated and that the forests he has spent so much time tending are to be destroyed, he rebels and, along with a couple of reprogrammed robots that he calls Huey, Dewey and Louie, takes control of the ship and goes on the run.

I've been meaning to see this after Mark Kermode cited it as an inspiration for both WALL-E and Moon, two films which I liked a great deal (though I have some problems with the ending of Moon), and it isn't too hard to spot the links. It shares an environmental consciousness with WALL-E, not to mention an emphasis on robots caring for plants, and like Moon it spends a good deal of its time focusing on the effect that isolation has on a central figure who is trapped very far from Earth.

Both films also, to an extent (and moreso in the case of Moon) replicate Silent Running's tone of beautiful melancholy, as all three focus on characters trying to do their jobs long after they need to or they understand why they are doing it. WALL-E continues to clean up Earth long after the rest of his fellow robots have stopped working and, until EVE shows up, with no sign that humanity will return. Sam goes about his days on the Moon tending to machines whose purpose he does not completely understand and which he has little real interest in. In this instance, Dern becomes so focused on his "dream" of seeing plants restored to Earth he is willing to murder the people who he has spent years living with and stealing a space ship in order to achieve it.

The film seeks to both damn and praise Dern's actions, on the one hand depicting him as a clearly unhinged individual whilst also finding something to admire in his love of the environment and the way in which he rails against the homogeny of a planet which has no plants and therefore "no beauty, no creative and no dreams." Considering that the film was made in 1972, it's possible to read this as the film both celebrating the values of the counter-culture surrounding it whilst also recognising that the flower power idealism of the 60s had already started to die out by the early 70s and was well on its way to being crushed by forces far greater than anything it could stand.

Silent Running is best during its middle-section, after Dern has taken control of the ship but before the film introduces a number of crises in the final act to bring about a reasonably quick and clean ending. It's during this section that the film spends much of its time showing how Dern starts to mentally disintegrate, forming emotional attachments to the robots he works with and even trying to teach them how to play cards. It's a sad and funny section of the film that works better than the two parts that surround it, even if the final image of the film is easily its most beautiful and unforgettable.