Throwback Thursday: “Silent Running” (1972)

Lobby card for "Silent Running" (1972)

Lobby card for SILENT RUNNING (1972) – image source: Movie Stills DB

Although Freeman Lowell seems like a “retro” persona from a bygone era, he and the film (Silent Running, 1972) in which he appears are still relevant in the 2010s. Freeman’s a scientist whose beliefs and actions run counter to the zeitgeist, the prevailing spirit of his times. He opposes the uncaring destruction of nature in the name of progress. As a result, he’s a lonely scientist. He’s not necessarily good or mad — two other movie scientist archetypes — even though he is a self-righteous true believer whose behavior often appears unusual to others. What is relevant and interesting about his story, even today, is the decision that he is forced to make in his alienated state of idealism. It’s a life-or-death call on several levels.

Background and Credits

Douglas Trumbull, a first-time director with a background in special effects work (Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968; Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain, 1971), helmed Silent Running. Trumbull’s directing career did not take off afterward, so he returned to special effects, making significant contributions to such hits as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and Blade Runner (1982).

The screenplay’s young writers were Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, and Steven Bochco. Washburn and Cimino later worked together on The Deer Hunter (1978). Bochco went on to be a heavy hitter in television (Hill Street Blues  and L.A. Law, for example).

The film starred Bruce Dern (The Great Gatsby, 1974; Coming Home, 1978; Nebraska, 2013; Django Unchained, 2012; The Hateful Eight, 2015). Supporting actors included Cliff Potts (who had a subsequent long career as a supporting actor in television), Ron Rifkin (L.A. Confidential, 1997; The Negotiator, 1998; Alias, 2001-2006), and Jesse Vint (Chinatown, 1974; Forbidden World, 1982).

Silent Running was an initial hit with critics, but a miss at the box office, even though it was made for the low figure of $1 million (estimated). However, audiences warmed to the film over time, as it appeared repeatedly on network television and was released via other home entertainment venues (e.g., cable TV, VHS, DVD, VOD). When I wrote this piece, Silent Running showed a critics’ Tomatometer rating of 67% and an audience score of 66% on Rotten Tomatoes, demonstrating a long-term concurrence of opinion between critics and viewers. At present, the film is considered by many science fiction fans to be a cult classic.

Story Summary

Publicity still for "Silent Running" (1972)

Bruce Dern as Freeman Lowell in SILENT RUNNING (1972) – image source: Movie Stills DB

Freeman Lowell (Dern) is the lone botanist and ecologist assigned to the Valley Forge, one of a fleet of commercial space freighters that have been sent by the United States government into deep space on a special mission. The ships guard the remains of the Earth’s natural environment, which was driven to the point of extinction by pollution and general ecological heedlessness. Their present location is in the vicinity of Saturn.

Freeman is responsible for maintaining several ecological habitats, which are housed in transparent geodesic domes attached to his ship. He has a love-hate relationship with the three other crew members: John Keenan (Potts), Marty Barker (Rifkin), and Andy Wolf (Vint). These three men manage and run the ship. Four robots (“drones”) help out with routine maintenance tasks, including those involving Dern’s ecological caretaker duties.

Lowell’s simmering conflict with his shipmates comes to a head when the fleet receives an order from Earth to return to commercial service after jettisoning and destroying the domes and their wildlife. A rather passive-aggressive personality, Lowell retreats into the solitude of his favorite dome, which houses a forest habitat, where he sulks in a state of shock and denial.

Gathering his courage and resolve, Lowell makes his stand in defense of Nature, ultimately killing all three of his shipmates in the process. Lowell himself is severely injured but manages to patch himself up with the help of the drones, who become his friends, companions, and helpers.

However, he still has to deal with the other ships, whose commanders are aware that the Valley Forge still has one intact dome. He tells them that his ship has been damaged by an explosion that killed the other three men. In order to evade the other ships, he convinces their commanders that his ship is out of control by setting it on a course through the rings of Saturn. This decision could lead to the ship’s destruction.

Miraculously, the Valley Forge emerges intact. However, a search party from the fleet catches up Lowell just when he starts to believe that he is free. Will he turn himself in or continue to fight for his beloved forest?


Publicity still for "Silent Running" (1972)

Freeman (Dern) at the controls of his ship – image source: Movie Stills DB

I saw this film for the first time on network TV when I was an eighth-grader, only a few years after its theatrical release. To be honest, the finale left me in tears. Freeman’s decision seemed heroic in a lonely kind of way that appealed to me as an early teen. Also, I couldn’t get over the lonely fidelity of the drone in the final scene.

Rewatching the film for this post — almost 40 years later — I was not as moved. I’ve been spoiled by the incredible development of science-fiction movie special effects, for which Trumbull (ironically) is in part responsible. By comparison, the effects in Silent Running seem primitive, as does the space-travel gadgetry in the ship’s control room set (although other shots that use the interior of a decommissioned aircraft carrier work well). I am amazed that the period’s space travel technology, on which the film’s spacecraft are based, enabled astronauts travel to, explore, and return from the Moon. All of these visuals are backed by a musical score of Joan Baez songs and movie orchestra pieces that seems hokey today.

Moreover, Bruce Dern’s casting as Freeman seems almost a mistake in hindsight. His looks, body type, and demeanor don’t seem to match up with the sensitive, nebbish, and feckless character of the lonely scientist that he portrays. Dern looks like a tougher guy, which is what he is most famous for playing. His two Academy Award nominations were for performances as a Marine Corps Captain (“Coming Home”) and a grouchy old alcoholic (“Nebraska”).

Nevertheless, Freeman has a darker side that comes out as the plot thickens. The purity of his environmentalism is muddied by a misanthropic streak. He’s not as harmless as he first appears. These traits come out when he’s forced to choose between life and death for himself, others, and the last vestige of Earth’s natural environment. Maybe Dern wasn’t so bad a choice for this film’s lead after all.

The development of Freeman’s character under the pressure of events beyond his control mirrors the complexity of the issue for which he is a champion. Given the current state of the Earth, is it possible for humanity to return to harmonious coexistence with nature? Will people inevitably destroy their natural environment? What does it take to protect the Earth’s flora and fauna from the predations of civilization? Faced with the decision that confronts Freeman in the third act, would we make the same choices? Are intelligent machines better equipped than humans to care for the planet?


Publicity still for "Silent Running" (1972)

Freeman (Dern) plays poker with two of the drones – image source: Movie Stills DB

Despite the old-school set design and clunky special effects that clearly date “Silent Running,” the story it tells has modern relevance, even if the musical score that accompanies it is part “flower child” hootenanny and part orchestral bombastics. This is why I chose Freeman Lowell, its main character, as the focus for my contribution to the 2016 Movie Scientist Blogathon.

Texas’s Frisco Kid’s Rating (on IMDb): 7 out of 10 stars

This post was part of the 2016 Movie Scientist Blogathon, hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings and Christina Wehner. Texas’s Frisco Kid reposted it here (in edited form) from his ill-fated Blogger site.


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