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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

Silent Running (1972), directed by Douglas Trumbull

Silent Running -

Well, this is complicated. Silent Running is the kind of movie (there are plenty of books floating in the same boat) where the rating comes with a warning label. This one really depends on what you're after.

Escapism. Tip your hat and move on. Unless your brand of escape includes long, slow stretches with little action and deeply depressing themes.

Genre completism. In other words, you're a science fiction fan who wants to see/read all the significant works in the genre. In which case, bump this one up a few notches on your to-be-watched list, if for no other reason than because it's a rarity: a good big-budget film built around a "small" science fiction idea.

Interpretation. That is, you like a movie that makes you think, one that reveals something about the human condition. The cool thing about this approach is, it doesn't matter if the thing's depressing. So if this is what you like, see it.

The story is this: Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is one of four men aboard a spaceship attached to which are several domed pods containing all that's left of Earth's natural wonder -- forests, flowers, fruit-bearing trees, squirrels, birds -- everything else having been destroyed in some unspecified (but surely nuclear) tragedy. On Earth, life -- human life -- goes on, and that's the problem. When Lowell and the others are ordered to destroy the pods and come home, far from sharing his companions' elation, Lowell -- the idealist, the child of nature -- is horrified. And he decides to stop the madness. In other stories, this would be the springboard to furious action as Good squares off against Evil. Here, it's more of a cliff-dive into rocky psychological waters.

Sharing the ship with Lowell are two (originally three) small ambulatory robots, significantly christened by Lowell as Huey and Dewey. They can't speak, but they do make certain sounds, and it becomes apparent as the story progresses that they even possess a low-grade sentience. When one of them breaks, the other is too worried or sad to help Lowell try to fix him. By this time, Lowell is alone on the ship, and though he tries valiantly, the two robots simply don't provide much companionship. Making matters worse, Lowell discovers that his forests are dying and he doesn't know why.

The beginning of the film is intriguing and the special effects and the sets are very good; the end is fascinating -- it's where all the intellectual meat is; but it's the long middle portion that drags the movie down from greatness. It's necessary, but it isn't particularly interesting in itself. In 2001, Kubrick worked hard to give each section not only its own thematic point, but also its own unique fascination. Trumbull is content to make his point. And that makes for some slow going for a good part of the film. On the other hand, it's refreshing that it has a point, one that goes beyond stereotypes and genre tropes.

I didn't know what to expect when I turned the movie on and I was pleasantly surprised by what I got. I've had a hundred opportunities to see this one over the years and until yesterday I'd passed up every one. Now I'm sorry I did.