Well, we’ve got an interesting one on our hands…
Hello guys, and welcome to a review of another classic film! This time, we are looking at one of the first environmental films, as we look at the post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama, Silent Running.
This film follows Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), who is controlling geodesic domes of plant specimens attached to space freighters, after all plant life on Earth becomes extinct. However, the order is soon called to jettison and destroy the plants, and that’s when he goes a bit nuts. This really did kind of bring environmental films to the limelight, and while it isn’t one of the biggest movie genres, when they are done well, they’re done well. And while I feel that this movie is definitely flawed, more so than some of the previous films I’ve reviewed, I still think it is a fun ride.
Despite its rather big budget for the time and grandiose sets, the movie feels rather stripped-down and calm, with a lot of dialogue-filled scenes and visual storytelling, and this works for better and for worse.
The movie has a great sense of world building, and the visual design are quite stunning. The director, Doug Trumbull, was previously involved with the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s easy to see why. The visual style is very reminiscent of 2001, albeit not quite as psychedelic (actually no, I take that back, nowhere flipping near as psychedelic), but Trumbull must have known that this design could have carried on and fitted in to other movies of the same genre: these visual touches are still being used in sci-fi cinema today.
As well as this, the environmental theme was conveyed very well. Bruce Dern’s character, Freeman Lowell, was very well-developed and engaging. You could see how passionate he was for the survival of the plant specimens and while Bruce Dern didn’t give the best performance I’ve ever seen in a movie, he did sell me on that, so he did succeed in bringing his character to life. And a discussion about this movie cannot go by without talking about Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Named after the anthropomorphic Disney ducks, there are service bots on the Valley Forge, and they are so cute and lovable. Oh, just adorable.
However, the film has some drawbacks, and unfortunately, most of them are narrative and story-based. My main problem with Silent Running is that the pacing feels very inconsistent. The start of the film throws us straight into the narrative, the environmental theme established, we are hooked into the film, and then in the second act, it feels very meandering and disjointed in places. There are too many scenes that play dialogue-free, which might be excusable and a good example of visual storytelling, but they feel a bit lifeless, and it makes what should be a really intense moment, where our hero commits murder in order to achieve his goals, a little bit dull.
Also, the story feels a bit shallow. This is actually one of the main issues that I seem to find critics have brought up when discussing the film, and I am inclined to agree. Lowell’s quest to save these plant specimens is a very good hook, don’t get me wrong, however it needed to be supported by something else, like a B-plot or some more character development. I find it especially strange that the simple plotting can’t even stretch to 90 minutes, so going back to my point about the pacing, the script has no choice but to slow things right down. Unfortunately for it, there isn’t quite enough substance for it to develop on.
However, these gripes aside, the film’s final third is where it really excels. Lowell is adjusting to life alone in space with three service bots, and some wit is brought to the movie, as Lowell tries to teach Huey and Dewey to plant trees and play poker. These sequences are very enjoyable, and then are switched by the ending. Without spoiling anything, our hero is faced with a dilemma, allowing for some great tension, and it pans out unpredictably, with the audience not knowing what will happen next. The payoff is suitably emotional, and a good contrast from the comical moments beforehand, before the final shot gives us some optimism again, as we see the fate of the plants and the domes.
Despite a bit more of a lukewarm reception I’ve given to this film, I did enjoy it. The positives do outweigh the negatives for me, and it does deserve the cult following it has been given. Mark Kermode says that he prefers this over 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that the film is one of his personal favourites. I respectfully disagree with his point of view, however the main character is fantastic, the production design is wonderful, there is a great heart to the film, and the third act is almost flawless. However, the pacing did need some work, and the story could have done with more depth and development.
Nevertheless, this is a thoroughly enjoyable environmental sci-fi film that I think is worthy of a 7 out of 10.
Well, there you have it, my thoughts on Silent Running. Apologies for the lack of reviews recently, but I hope this one was worth the wait. I’m going to discuss The Sixth Sense, 12 Angry Men, Harry Potter and more in the future, however I am working on some more TV reviews such as Stranger Things, Dirk Gently, as well as A Series Of Unfortunate Events, the Netflix adaptation, which I will also comparing to the 2004 film. All this and more to come, but until next time, enjoy the movies and goodbye!