Hippies in space
My instant reaction to Silent Running from 1972 was scepticism. So this was the best science fiction movie ever made according to Mark Kermode and one of his favourite movies of all the movies there are in the world?
I was watching some dude with long hair and a dress tending to his plants in a gigantic greenhouse ship cruising around in the neighbourhood of Saturn. It looked old, a tad corny and kind of cheap, like a Star Trek episode from the original series
I could sense that it might be charming but I expect so much more from a science fiction movie. I expect it to put me in a state of sense of wonder, give me a feeling of the vastness of time and space or at least put some interesting, intriguing ideas in my head. Could it be that Kermode’s judgement had been deceived by his nostalgia for his personal early memories from his first movie experiences? It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It happens to everyone.
Let’s go into the story a bit.
Silent Running takes place in a future where plant life on Earth basically has been destroyed and properly grown food is replaced by some synthetic junk. The plants in the ship greenhouses are all what remain of the flora and the idea is to preserve it and use it to restore Earth back into shape at some point. The three other crew members care more about running co-cart chases in the spaceships than to bother about the environment. They can’t wait to return to Earth and when the order comes to shut down the project, destroying the greenhouses, they greet it with joy.
Our protagonist, the forest ranger Freeman Lowell on the other hand is dedicated to the plant growing, and he decides to defy the orders and take action. After killing his colleagues he takes off in space in the company of the robots Huey and Dewey who he programs so they can help him with the essentials: playing cards with him.
Won me over
For spoiler reasons I won’t say anything more about what happens after this, but I can say as much as that the initial hippie shock was just a passing stage and when we had reached the end, which is a beautiful exclamation mark, the movie had won me over completely.
It’s not only charming and beautiful; it’s also got something of the same tone of melancholy and interest for the personal perspective that I find in Ray Bradbury’s short stories, which make them stand out to other space adventures. This script isn’t based on a Bradbury story, but perhaps it could have been.
Before making this film, the director worked with the special effects of 2001: A space Odyssey. And you can tell that he has put a bit of extra love to the special effects.
It’s made at a time when they used miniatures rather than computer generated images and I think it’s pretty solid, though I suppose that with the standards of today, the effects aren’t spectacular. On the other hand – I don’t think spectacular effects are required to make a good science fiction movie. Just look at Moon from 2009. The budget was tiny compared to the awesomeness of the movie.
My love for the science fiction genre has very little to do with the effects. It’s about the ideas, the tone and the execution. Silent Running has all of this. And on top of that it’s a cute reminiscence of a time when revolution was in the air and punk rockers had flowers in their hair, with the words of Sando Thom (even though she obviously has mixed a few things up).
Hippies in space. It’s way better than it sounds.
Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, US, 1972) My rating: 4/5