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SILENT RUNNING

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint, The Drones
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Audio: English Dolby Mono, French Dolby Mono, Spanish Dolby Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 90 Minutes
Release Date: May 21, 2002

Film ***

In the not very distant future, man has at last finished with Earth. The mountains are leveled and the valleys filled in, and there are no growing plants left to mess things up. Everything is nice and sterile, and man's global housekeeping has achieved total defoliation. Out around the rings of Saturn, a few lonely spaceships keep their vigil. They're interplanetary greenhouses, pointed always toward the sun. Inside their acres and acres of forests, protected by geodesic domes that gather the sunlight, the surviving plants and small animals of Earth grow. There are squirrels and rabbits and moonlit nights when the wind does actually seem to breathe in the trees: a ghostly reminder of the dead forests of Earth.

The keeper of one of these greenhouses, Freeman Lowell, loves the plants and animals with a not terribly acute intelligence. Silent Running is his story. In an earlier day, he might have been a forest ranger and happily spent the winter all alone in a tower, spotting forest fires. Now he is millions of miles from Earth, but his thoughts are filled with weeding and pruning, fertilizer and the artificial rainfall.

One day the word comes from Earth: Destroy the greenhouses and return. Lowell cannot bring himself to do this, and so he destroys his fellow crew members instead. Then he hijacks his spaceship and directs it out into the deep galactic night. All of this is told with simplicity and a quiet ecological concern, and it makes Silent Running a movie out of the ordinary--especially if you like science fiction.

The director is Douglas Trumbull, a Canadian who designed many of the special effects for Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Trumball also did the computers and the underground laboratory for The Andromeda Strain, and is one of the best science-fiction special-effects men. Silent Running, which has deep space effects every bit the equal of those in 2001, also introduces him as an intelligent, if not sensational, director. The weight of the movie falls on the shoulders of Bruce Dern, who plays the only man in sight during most of the picture. His only companions are Huey, Louie, and Dewey, who are small and uncannily human robots who help with the gardening. They're OK with a trowel but no good at playing poker, as their human boss discovers during a period of boredom.

Silent Running is about a basically uncomplicated man faced with an awesome, but uncomplicated, situation. Given a choice between the lives of his companions and the lives of Earth's last surviving firs and pines, oaks and elms, and creepers and cantaloupes, he decides for the growing things. After all, there are plenty of men. His problem is that, after a while, he begins to miss them.

Video ***1/2

Universal surprises this time with quite a remarkable anamorphic transfer of a thirty year old film. Picture quality is superb, with all of the futuristic settings enhanced to a striking look. The colors of the film look outstanding too! I never knew an age old film, even one from the 70s, could look so extravagant, but Universal has proved the impossible with this release.

Audio **1/2

Offered in only a 2.0 Mono track, Silent Running certainly isnít a groundbreaking sounding disc, but it certainly couldíve been much worse. For what itís worth, this 1971 production does what it can with the audio supplied, which shines mostly with that of the score by Peter Schickele, as well as the eccentric music by Joan Baez. Some settings in the film provide good opportunity for limited surround sound, too. All in all, a good enough presentation that makes the most of its limited capacity.

Features ***1/2

A nice load of extras, and fans of this original sci-fi epic are likely to get their moneys worth, since the disc has been priced under $20. Included is a commentary track with director Douglas Trumbull and star Bruce Dern. Also included are three featurettes: The Making of Silent Running, A Conversation with Bruce Dern, and Douglas Trumbull: Then and Now. Also featured are production notes and a trailer.

Summary:

Silent Running isnít exactly among the greatest of science fiction films, but it does stand out in terms of story line and originality, which is displayed by a director who obviously knows his future (no pun intended). A truly eccentric futuristic offering.