Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Take care of the forest, Dewey."

You know, when I was a kid, I put a note into a bottle and it had my name and address on it. And then I threw the bottle into the ocean. And I never knew if anybody ever found it.
Freeman Lowell, Silent Running
As part of our ongoing wedding planning, Karli and I paid a visit to Vancouver's picturesque Queen Elizabeth Park this past weekend in order to look at possible luncheon and ceremony venues for our wedding.*


In addition to wedding pavilions and fine dining, Queen Elizabeth Park is also the home of the Bloedel Conservatory, a charming greenhouse oasis of tropical plants and birds.


My first thought on seeing the Conservatory was, "Wait, I recognize that - it's one of the domes from Silent Running!"  Coincidentally, I had just purchased a copy of Douglas Trumbull's 1972 directorial debut on, so I sat down on Sunday afternoon to do a rewatch.


Silent Running is an intriguing movie that rides the fine line between classic and cult. It was produced as part of a series of five low-budget films by novice directors funded by Universal in hopes of repeating the unexpected success of Easy Rider in 1969.**


The movie tells the story of Freeman Lowell, part of a four-man crew that maintains the Valley Forge, one of a fleet of converted freighters orbiting Saturn. The ships are equipped with biodomes that house the remaining trees and plants from Earth, preserved against a time when they can be restored to their natural habitat.

When the government decides to destroy the domes and return the fleet to commercial service, Lowell rebels.  He kills his crewmates, and escapes with the ship and the last remaining forest by faking an catastrophic accident.  He takes the ship on a hazardous passage through Saturn's ring system and vanishes into the depths of space, aided by the ship's three robotic drones - one of which is destroyed in their passage through the rings.

Lowell, haunted by guilt over the deaths of his crewmates, reprograms the drones to act as replacements, naming them Huey and Dewey (Louie having been lost to Saturn's rings) and teaching them how to care for the plants and animals.  However, over time the forest begins to die, and Lowell is driven into depression by his inability to solve the problem, even with the help of his robotic companions.


Eventually a search party discovers the Valley Forge, and a chance comment by one of the searchers makes Lowell realize that the forest's problem is lack of sunlight.  He erects lights to replace the distant Sun, and then ejects the dome along with Huey. Dewey, damaged in an accident, is unable to reliably help with the forest, and so remains with Lowell as he blows up the ship in order to conceal the fate of the last forest and its robotic caretaker. 

Silent Running is a movie of firsts: it's Bruce Dern's first starring role, it's the (sometimes obvious) directing debut of special effects guru Douglas Trumbull, and the first professional FX credit for the legendary John Dykstra, hired as a student to help out with the spaceship models. Surprisingly, it's also one of the first scriptwriting credits for Steven Bochco, who is more noted for his crime dramas than science fiction.

Lowell, skillfully played by Dern, is an ambiguous figure, as much villain as hero: he's a fanatic who kills three people in his single-minded quest to do what he thinks is right, but he also regrets what he's done, and he's sincere in his love for the forests under his protection, to the point where he's willing to sacrifice his own life as well.  Dern is the perfect casting choice for this role, and he makes Lowell a surprisingly sympathetic character with unexpected depth, a portrayal which marks his transition from playing moody outlaws to more dramatic roles.

The low budget is sometimes obvious, but in some ways it works to the film's advantage. For example, most of the spaceship interiors were shot on the actual Valley Forge, a decommissioned aircraft carrier, which gives those scenes a sense of logic and solid physicality. The shells of the three robot drones are occupied by legless bilateral amputees, which removed the need for expensive electronic models, but which also makes the drones much more anthropomorphic in their reactions and timing.

Overall, Silent Running is an entertaining movie, but it's painted in very large strokes, more of a character study than a fully realized story.  It's also not a subtle film: the ecological message is blatant, right down to having legendary hippy activist/singer Joan Baez provide vocals for the soundtrack, and naming the last defender of the forests Freeman.

However, the simplicity and directness of the movie work well together, making Silent Running into a sort of environmentalist fairy tale, a fairy tale that could easily have started out the way that fairy tales do:
"Once upon a time, there was a man who loved the forest..."

  - Sid

* If you're curious, we batted 500: we got the luncheon venue we wanted, but not the wedding pavilion - which, at three grand for 90 minutes, is fine with me.

** One of the other films was American Graffiti, which launched the career of George Lucas*** and paved the way for Star Wars. So, really, Dennis Hopper is responsible for the Star Wars franchise.

*** And Harrison Ford's career as well, come to think of it.

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