In 2011 65daysofstatic performed a live re-score of Silent Running at the Glasgow Film Festival. Originally intendedto be a one-off performance, it proved so popular that it led to a tour and a crowd-sourced, limited-edition, vinyl recording.
This performance is the first time their re-recorded soundtrack has been presented alongside the film in a cinema.
When it was released in 1972, the publicity posters for Silent Running carried the unimaginative tag line "amazing companions on an incredible adventure... that journeys beyond imagination!" It was so vapid that it could have been pressed in to service for almost any other film released that year, or indeed any year, and still been accurate. From Fillmore, a documentary about the Haight-Ashbury music scene, to Carry On Matron, a cinema-goer would at least have left the auditorium without feeling that she had been duped by Universal Picture’s marketing department.
Not so with Silent Running, a film which is a world away from the action-oriented science fiction that dominates modern mainstream cinema. There are companions, yes, but they’re not amazing. There is no real adventure. And the plot is more believable than it is far-fetched. Plant life on Earth has been made extinct and all that is left are a few scraps of rainforest, housed in geodesic domes attached to American Airlines freighters in orbit around Saturn. When the freighters' crews are ordered to destroy the domes and return to active service, Freeman Lowell (played by Bruce Dern), the botanist aboard the freighter Valley Forge refuses to do so. Instead he takes control of his ship and attempts to escape so as to preserve the last remaining forest.
Silent Running was a product of the curious era between the late 1960s and the mid-1970s, in which science fiction had moved on from the high-camp of Forbidden Planet but not yet reached the blockbuster era ushered in by the Star Wars trilogy. It was an interesting period which saw the release of some of the most celebrated films of the genre: Solaris was also released in 1972, and 2001: A Space Odyssey had been released 4 years earlier. Dark Star, John Carpenter’s slightly surreal debut, followed in 1974. Silent Running isn’t quite as cerebral as the first two, nor imaginative as the last named, but it certainly sits well in their company and deserves its status as a minor classic. Its an understated film, melancholy in tone, and the environmental message is prioritised over the spectacle. This may have been partly down to pragmatism: the film was made for only $1m, ten times less than 2001.
There are moments of drama, and the occasional explosion, but it is far from an action film. For the most part the central character is alone with three maintenance drones. Although mute there is a certain humanity to them, something which is often attributed to the fact that they were operated by amputees. They are, at any rate, far more memorable than Bruce Dern’s human co-stars.
The film does have its weaknesses: the message is delivered without subtlety, and with a certain over-earnestness. The central themehow Earth’s plant life was made extinct, and how humanity managed to survive such a catastrophegoes unexplored. (It’s a theme which is explored to great effect in John Christopher’s novel Death of Grass). It’s also slightly let down by weak script-writing, which is curious given that it was co-written by Michael Cimino. Dern’s performance more than makes up for these weaknesses however, and he carries the film in way which is unusual in science fiction. It’s a similar, although far less accomplished, performance to Sam Rockwell’s remarkable turn in 2009’s Moon, a film with which it shares some similarities of tone and mood. Duncan Jones, who directed Moon, acknowledged Silent Running as an influence.
Watched today Silent Running holds up well. Perhaps not as well as Solaris or 2001, but it’s certainly more than just a period piece, and the finale retains its poignancy. If anything, the message is one which resonates with a wider audience now than when it was released, albeit without the sophistication and layers of meaning we expect from modern cinema. This is part of its charm though. It’s a film which wears its heart on its sleeve.