SILENT RUNNING (1972, Directed by Douglas Trumbull)

M. Keith Booker, University of Arkansas

Directed by famed special-effects master Douglas Trumbull and co-written by future big names Michael Cimino and Steven Bochco (along with Deric Washburn), Silent Running is typical of American science fiction film in the early 1970s in its pessimistic projection of a blighted future. It can be considered both a dystopian film and postapocalyptic, though it stands out for its special focus on environmentalism. In this film, we see little of the blighted earth, however. In fact, there is some indication in the film that the earth of this films is, surprisingly, something of a utopia, even if the utopian conditions have been achieved at the expense of the destruction of nature. In any case, the film stipulates that environmental degradation on earth has made the planet unable to sustain forests and large-scale plant life. In response, huge space habitats have been set up in which humans and robots tend the last vestiges of the earth’s forests, hoping to keep them alive toward the day when they can be returned to earth. There is no explanation of how humans can live in comfort and affluence on an earth that is essentially unable to sustain plant life, nor is there any explanation for the order that suddenly comes through in the film for the “forests” on the Valley Forge and other ships participating in the program to be destroyed and the ships that bear them returned to earth. This order triggers the main action of the film, in which nature-lover Freeman Lowell[1] (Bruce Dern) undertakes a desperate effort (even resorting to the murder of his crewmates) to save the forests on board his ship. This effort makes Lowell appear a bit unhinged and ultimately leads to his death, but the film’s sympathies are clearly with Lowell and with saving the forest, one module of which (capped by a distinctive geodesic dome modeled in part on the “Climatron” at the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis) remains in operation in deep space as the film ends, tended by a lone, waddling robot, or “drone,” the last of three (dubbed “Huey, Dewey, and Louie”[2]) that are one of the highlights of the film, though one could argue that they introduce an excessive element of cuteness in a film that addresses such serious issues.

Silent Running begins with a series of shots of beautiful flowers among sumptuous foliage, beaded dewily with water in a suggestion of abundance and fertility. These shots also include animals such as snails, turtles, frogs, and (especially) bunnies, reminding us that animals depend on plants to live (but also overtly playing on the positive associations that most viewers will have with such small animals[3]. The film then proceeds to a shot of Lowell, first swimming in tropical-looking plant-lined pool and then working lovingly to tend his Edenic garden, which is then suddenly invaded by his three loutish companions on what we will soon realize is a spaceship, racing and joy-riding on four-wheelers to try to alleviate the boredom of a long tour of duty in space. In the process, they show absolutely no respect of concern for Lowell or the plants he so devotedly tends. This opening scene thus serves to establish the basic scenario of the film, culminating in a long shot of their spacecraft seven minutes in, identifying it as the American Airlines Space Freighter Valley Forge.

Nothing is made of it in the film, but the fact that the freighter is apparently operated by a private company, American Airlines—today the world’s largest airline by several measures—surely implicates private enterprise in the forces that have destroyed earth’s natural environment. Airlines do, in fact, create a tremendous amount of pollution, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine the operation of the Valley Forge as American Airlines’ halfhearted attempt to try to make up for some of the damage they have done—though one suspects that they are operating this craft with generous public financing via taxpayer dollars. Indeed, while capitalism is not specifically singled out in this film as a culprit, it almost doesn’t need to be, given that the central role of capitalist modernization in general and major capitalist corporations in particular in damaging the natural environment and bringing about climate change is well known and rather obvious. Thus, any film that deals with the possibility of environmental decay is already by definition addressed to capitalism.

We also learn early on that Lowell has been on this craft tending its plants for the past eight years and that preserving what is left of the natural earth is his life’s work. His three companions, on the other hand, are merely hired hands, currently halfway through a one-year tour of duty in space and with no real investment in the mission. Within the film’s first few minutes, we have been introduced to all four of the human characters who appear on-screen in the film. It has also been made clear the Lowell is going to be the protagonist and point-of-view character, and much has been done to align our sympathies with him and his concern for nature, while identifying his companions as soulless oafs for whom we need have little care. The invasion and trampling of Lowell’s garden by their four wheelers, meanwhile, makes it clear that the situation in this film is going to be directly related to environmental concerns on the earth of the 1970s, when the damage done to nature by recreational four-wheelers was already becoming the subject of some controversy. It also helps to make clear the extent to which, as prominent British critic Mark Kermode notes in his book-length study of the film, while the film “may be set in the ‘future’ (at the time of its creation, the year 2008 was but a distant horizon), Silent Running is very firmly rooted in the past—specifically in the counter-cultural upheavals of the late 1960s, and the legacy of the Vietnam War” (10).

The opening sequence of the trampling of Lowell’s garden will ultimately combine with another emotionally powerful scene that ends the film to form bookends that bracket all the intervening action. By the end of the film, all of the human characters are dead, two of the drones are destroyed, and only Dewey remains operational, faithfully tending the remains of Lowell’s forest, carefully watering the plants with a children’s watering can that emphasizes Dewey’s childlike simplicity, while also punching up the sentimental impact of this final scene. Indeed, Kermode recalls being haunted by this final scene, which he found heartbreaking when he saw it as a nine-year-old, noting that many others have shared his ongoing enthusiasm for the film as a whole, with this scene as a linchpin of emotional identification with the film. Roger Ebert, for example, gave the film a four-star (out of four), though he noted that it is not very profound and based his positive assessment on the human drama surrounding Lowell and his predicament rather than on the film’s treatment of its environmentalist themes.

Dewey’s battered child’s watering can.

It is telling that the boxlike drones of this film are able to evoke such emotional reactions, despite lacking facial features, voices, or other advances features. Simple effects are sometimes the best. Still, for a film made in 1972 (before the advent of computer-generated imagery), the special effects of Silent Running are absolutely first-rate, which is not surprising for a film directed by Trumbull, one of Hollywood’s legendary special effects wizards. In 1972, he had already made a major name for himself in that realm by overseeing the creation of special effects for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). He would then ultimately become even better known as a key figure in the science fiction film explosion of the late 1970s and early 1980s, becoming the genius behind the special effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1979), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and Blade Runner (1982).

The drones of Silent Running.

Trumbull did not, incidentally, work on the special effects for Star Wars (1977), even though that is the film to which the effects of Silent Running are most often compared[4]. These comparisons come about partly because of the extent to which Star Wars revolutionized special effects and partly because of the clear way the three drones of Silent Running anticipate the ultra-cute R2-D2 of Star Wars fame. These drones also anticipate a number of other such figures, perhaps most importantly the central robot figure in Wall-E (2008), a film that has much in common with Silent Running in terms of its central theme, though it goes the extra step of making a cute robot the actual protagonist of the film. The childlike drones of Silent Running serve a number of functions in the film, one of which is simply to provide a sentimental focus in an attempt to generate increased audience identification with the project of the film. They also provide an important example of sympathetic technology of the film, presumably avoiding any interpretation of the film as purveying a simplistic opposition between technology and nature, with technology ultimately functioning as a purely destructive and dehumanizing force.

One element of this film that complicates its portrayal of technology is its suggestion that life on the future earth of this film is in many ways quite good—for humans. Lowell, though, argues that the improved material conditions on life have been attained at the expense of everything that makes us truly human. In particular, technological advances on earth have imposed what he finds to be a dehumanizing sameness and homogeneity. “On earth,” he complains, “everywhere you go the temperature is 75 degrees. Everything is the same. All the people are exactly the same. Now, what kind of life is that?” Lowell here extends a common concern about conformism in American society, which had become a major focus of social criticism from the 1950s, when the rapid expansion of brands, chains, and other forms of homogenization was felt by many to represent an increase in efficiency at the cost of a loss of humanity. One of Lowell’s companions, however, points out that there is, in this future world, “hardly any more disease, there’s no more poverty. Nobody’s out of a job.” Lowell does not dispute this characterization, so we are presumably supposed to accept it as accurate. But Lowell immediately responds that, while there might be no unemployment or poverty and little disease, there is also “no more beauty. And there’s no imagination. And there are no frontiers left to conquer.”

For Lowell, then, the high levels of material comfort that have been reached in this future world are problematic, not only because they have been achieved at the expense of the destruction of earth’s natural environment and the imposition of forced conformism, but also because life has been made too comfortable, removing an important dimension from human life. This concern, incidentally, is not unique in the science fiction of this period, when many projections of possible utopian futures were accompanied by anxieties that the removal of the elements of struggle and challenge from human life would be dehumanizing, deprive human beings of a very important part of what makes them human.

To an extent, this concern goes all the way back to the effete Eloi of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), which had been made into a classic science fiction film in 1960. Well’s Time Traveller voyages into the far future and discovers there a race of passive, cattlelike humans (the Eloi) who seem to have lost all capacity for action or creativity. “I never met,” says the Traveller, “people more indolent or more easily fatigued” (28). The Eloi seem to have decayed not only in industry, but in size and strength. They are only about four feet tall and seem “indescribably frail” in a way that reminds the Traveller of “the more beautiful kind of consumptive” (23). The Time Traveller never learns with certainty the exact cause of this degeneration of humanity into weakness and passivity, though he initially postulates that the decline of the Eloi came about because their ancestors had achieved a perfect world in which they could easily survive without strength or ingenuity.

In Wells’ case, however, this reading will eventually be modified by the Traveller’s discovery of the Morlocks, a parallel race of humans who are stronger and more industrious—and who in fact raise the Eloi as food animals. The Traveller then concludes that the future bifurcation of humanity is simply an extension of the class division of his own day, merely a result of “the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the capitalist and the laborer” (48). He envisions the Eloi as the descendants of a ruling class that grew increasingly effete through exploitation of the labor of the class that eventually evolved into the Morlocks. Meanwhile, reasons the Traveller, the turnabout through which the Morlocks came to dominate the Eloi probably occurred because the labor of the Morlocks, along with their closer contact with (and better understanding of) machines, kept them more vital.

Such issues are entirely missing in Silent Running, which does not deal with class differences at all—and in which the vision of a homogenized future could even be read as a suggestion that class differences have been eliminated altogether in this future world, a suggestion that seems highly unrealistic, given that a world based on exploitation of nature is likely to involve the class-based exploitation of humans as well. Given Wells intense focus on class, a more direct (and more contemporary) parallel to Trumbull’s film would be the original Star Trek (1966–1969) television series, which also posits a future utopian world in which class differences have been effectively eliminated via technological progress. Interestingly, this series also frequently interrogates the question of whether utopian conditions might ultimately be dehumanizing. The episode of this series that is most directly relevant to Silent Running is perhaps the late first-season episode “This Side of Paradise,” which is set mostly on a Federation colony planet on which everyone has perfect health and lives in perfect harmony, content to lie around sniffing flowers and making love. This situation, an obvious commentary on the drug-fueled hippie ethos of the 1960s counterculture, is caused by spoors produced by plants on the planet, which also have the added benefit of protecting anyone who inhales them from the otherwise deadly radiation that bombards the planet, giving everyone perfect health. The spoors work even on Mr. Spock, who is shown happily frolicking among the flowers and contentedly in love with a beautiful young woman he meets on the planet. Captain Kirk, however, stays aboard the Enterprise and is thus unaffected by the spoors. Further, he eventually manages to “rescue” his crew from the planet, based on his belief that this drug-induced happiness is unnatural and unhealthy and that human beings must have battles to fight and obstacles to overcome in order to reach their true potential. For him, this utopia is a dystopia that stifles creativity and individual achievement. On balance, the episode (like the series as a whole) seems to side with Kirk, though it gives Spock the last word as he responds to Kirk by noting, “Nevertheless, I was happy,” leaving open the possibility of interpreting conditions on the planet as genuinely desirable, even if they do suppress the drive to achieve more and more that Kirk seems to favor[5].

The attempt in Silent Running to produce a nuanced treatment of the issue of environmental destruction as a result of industrial and technological development probably seemed more reasonable in 1972 than it does now, half a century later. By this time, it is clear that industrial and technological progress, whatever material benefits they might bring, are extremely unlikely to bring about any results that will contribute to the development of greater levels of social justice if they are pursued in a way that would lead to the destruction of the natural environment. During that half century, we have come to understand much more thoroughly the ways in which the kind of development that leads to environmental destruction tends to be informed by a ruthless quest for profit that also contributes to greater income inequality and social injustice. In addition, we have come better to understand that any economic development that undermines the preservation of the natural environment is not likely to be sustainable in the long run. The ongoing destruction of the natural environment makes ongoing economic progress more and more difficult, especially in less affluent parts of the world, whose inhabitants often pay the price for the unrestrained development that is pursued by corporations in the world’s wealthier nations. In addition, this kind of environmental destruction, including deforestation, would almost certainly lead to catastrophic climate change and runaway global warming, making the uniform 75-degree temperatures mentioned by Lowell an absolute impossibility.

To this extent, the basic scenario put forth in Silent Running is highly unrealistic and shows an unsophisticated understanding of climate change that is perhaps not surprising in a film made so early in the development of our understanding of this phenomenon. Moreover, the particular terms of the film threaten to undermine its ostensible environmentalist message in at least two ways. On the one hand, the human-managed environment aboard the Valley Forge threatens simply to extend a problematic notion of humans dominating and controlling nature that was much of the problem in the first place[6]. In addition, by suggesting that economic development and the conservation of the environment are separate and unrelated goals. Granted, we see everything in the film from Lowell’s point of view, and we are presumably meant to sympathize with his vision, which is aligned with the early-1970s environmentalist movement through a number of cues in the film. For example, at one point we see Lowell sitting beside a poster bearing the “Conservation Pledge,” to which he presumably ascribes. This pledge, officially known as the “Outdoor Life Conservation Pledge,” was originally established in 1946 by the editors of Outdoor Life magazine to remind its readers that we all need to contribute in order to preserve the natural world. The original pledge (which is the one shown in the film) reads: “I give my pledge as an American to save and faithfully to defend from waste the natural resources of my country—its soil and minerals, its forests, waters, and wildlife.”[7]

In the early 1970s, incidentally, this pledge was often distributed via posters that bore the image of Smokey the Bear, a sort of official conservation mascot adopted by the U.S. Forest Service in 1944. Smokey, with his famous “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” motto, adopted in 1947, was extremely prominent in pro-conservation advertising at the time Silent Running was made. The poster shown in Silent Running does not bear the image of Smokey, but the iconic bear does make an appearance of sorts soon afterward as Lowell works to program the drones to play poker, meanwhile absentmindedly singing to himself the “Smokey the Bear Song,” a little ditty about Smokey and conservation that was popular among Cub Scouts at the time, though it was originally recorded all the way back in 1952 by Eddy Arnold, as can be seen in this promotional video currently available on YouTube:

The lyrics sung by Lowell go as follows:

You can take a tip from Smokey

That there’s nothing like a tree.

Oh, they’re great for kids to climb in

And they’re beautiful to see.

Of course, the fact that this song, like the Conservation Pledge, is so old (not to mention terribly corny) threatens to undermine the seriousness of Lowell’s pro-conservation stance, though the music of the film otherwise rather supports his position, given that the soundtrack is dominated by the music of folksinger Joan Baez, a prominent performer whose music was closely associated with the 1960s counterculture, the political context out of which the conservation/environmentalist movement sprang. Indeed, given the powerful affective role played by music in cinema, it seems clear that this music, with its lilting lines of praise for the beauties of nature, is a key reason why almost all viewers of this film have interpreted it as having a strong environmentalist theme, even if the film also (and somewhat weirdly) associates the destruction of the natural environment with the establishment of utopian social and economic conditions on earth. Baez’s rendition of “Rejoice in the Sun,” written (by Diane Lampert and Peter Schickele[8] especially for this film) then closes out the film with a rather direct statement of its didactic message:

Fields of children running wild in the sun

Like a forest is your child growing wild in the sun

Doomed in his innocence in the sun

Gather your children to your side in the sun

Tell them all they love will die

Tell them why in the sun

Tell them it’s not too late

Cultivate one by one

Tell them to harvest and rejoice in the sun

Baez’s participation in this film would seem to constitute a ringing endorsement from the 1960s counterculture, which should help to make clear the film’s environmentalist intentions. Moreover, Kermode goes on to note that young people involved in the counterculture were specifically envisioned as the core audience for this film, whose producers hoped to tap some of the market that had recently been successfully demonstrated to exist by Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969). And Kermode is certainly correct about the connections between this film and the counterculture, though his own evidence suggests that there is reason to believe that the strength of Baez’s commitment to the film might be a bit questionable. Kermode relates an anecdote in which he met Baez and told her how much he loved her music in the film. “Oh yeah?” she replied. “I remember that. Never seen it. Is it any good?” (66).

Indeed, a closer look shows that there are also markers in the film that seem to undermine the effectiveness of the film as an environmentalist call to action. The most important of these is the characterization of Lowell himself, who, however well-intentioned he might be (and however much we are clearly intended to sympathize with him), is also depicted as something of an extremist who murders all of his fellow crew members in the interest of his environmentalist goals, before finally blowing up the entire Valley Forge with himself (and a Huey that is too badly damaged to be helpful to Dewey in tending the forest) on board. Before this final act, though, Lowell jettisons the module containing his remaining forest so that it cannot be destroyed by his bosses from earth. In this sense, especially when read from the perspective of the 2020s, Lowell comes off as something of a forerunner to modern-day eco-terrorists, who have sometimes used extreme and violent measures to call attention to the environmental crisis, though it has been argued both that the tactics adopted by eco-terrorists are justified given the seriousness of the crisis and that official responses to eco-terrorism have themselves been extreme and excessive.

In short, associating Lowell’s position with eco-terrorism does not necessarily discredit his position, depending on one’s attitude toward eco-terrorism. The problem is that Lowell’s actions would seem to serve no positive purpose, while eco-terrorism arguably has the potential to call attention to important environmentalist and animal rights issues that might otherwise be ignored. Lowell himself admits that his suicide at the time of the film is not designed to call attention to the issues he supports but is simply an acknowledgement that he gives up and doesn’t want to fight any more. “I just can’t do it anymore,” he says as he hands the forest off to Dewey: “You see, things just haven’t worked out for me.” And, while he employs a classic “message in a bottle” metaphor to describe what he is doing with the forest module tended by Dewey, even he admits that, when he tossed such a bottle into the ocean as a kid he got no response, suggesting that he knows the chances of this message being received anywhere where it might make a difference are slim. At the same time, while Lowell’s own activities do not seem likely to have a real impact in the world of the film, one could argue that, in Silent Running, the message being delivered is not Lowell’s message to his future world, but the film’s message to the world of the early 1970s. And, even though the messaging of Silent Running seems a bit confused from the perspective of the 2020s, when our understanding of environmental issues is much more sophisticated, one could argue that the messaging is about as effective as one could expect within the context of the early 1970s, when the environmentalist movement was still at a rather immature stage.

Works Cited

Booker, M. Keith. Star Trek: A Cultural History. Rowman and Littlefield, 2018.

Ebert, Roger. “Silent Running.” RogerEbert.com, 1 January 1971, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/silent-running-1971. Accessed 20 February 2022.

Kermode, Mark. Silent Running. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Thompson, Matthew I. “Cinematic Arkitecture: Silent Running and the Spaceship Earth Metaphor.” New Review of Film and Television Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3, 2020, 249–74.

Notes


[1] Lowell was apparently named for the prominent astronomer Percival Lowell, best known for having wrongly suggested the possibility of canals on Mars, though he had many other achievements as well.

[2] The names, of course, are derived from the names of the three cartoon nephews of Donald Duck, thus immediately connecting these drones to nostalgia for the simpler times of childhood.

[3] We don’t really know the exact status of animals on the future earth of this film, but it stands to reason that, with their natural environments destroyed, most wild animals must be n earing extinction as well.

[4] On the other hand, John Dykstra, the principal special effects wizard behind Star Wars, also served on the large special effects staff of Silent Running, his first credited work on a film.

[5] Versions of this particular Spock vs. Kirk opposition occur at several points in the original Star Trek. For more on the topic of utopianism in the original Star Trek, see my book Star Trek: A Cultural History.

[6] Along these lines, see Thompson for an argument of the problematic nature of the “Spaceship Earth” metaphor that is so central to the film, He argues, however, that this problem is overcome in the film’s end, when humans are removed, and Dewey is left to live in harmony with the remaining forest instead of in domination of it.

[7] This pledge was revised in 1993. It now reads: “I pledge to protect and conserve the natural resources of America. I promise to educate future generations so they may become caretakers of our water, air, land and wildlife.”

[8] Silent Running was also scored by Schickele, his first endeavor in writing a film score. He was, at the time, much better known as a musical satirist performing under the name P.D.Q. Bach.