Friday, June 11, 2010

Maggie 2010: An Oversight Corrected

#78. Silent Running

Picture this: It's Tuesday night at Gen X, so you don't partake in any special deals, but you have the pleasure of my presence behind the desk. So, you say, I'm looking for a movie. Well, I say, what have you seen recently that you liked? Oh, you say, the usual. I really liked Moon, that was great. Oh, I say, so you enjoy a good sci fi? Well, you say, sure, but it doesn't have to be too serious. You liked WALL-E? I say. Loved WALL-E, you say. Do you have anything else like that?

Until today, I would sadly have stalled and cycled through quite a bit of inventory before finding you the perfect fusion of these films. But no more! Because now I know I have Silent Running at hand for just such an occasion.

Silent Running is a hauntingly precise hippie sci-fi from 1972, and stands both as a precursor (stylistically) to the later Star Wars (indeed, the latter's production crew even included teams from the former, and you'd have to be blind not to see how the drones in the former served as precedent for the quirky characters of R2-D2 and C3PO), and also (thematically) to the aforementioned WALL-E. What is it, by the way, with we humans giving robots more benefit of the doubt when it comes to acting humanely than we do humans themselves? Haven't we seen the error of our ways often enough where that's concerned?

But in all seriousness, as the directorial debut of Douglas Trumbull, Silent Running has aged better than most sci-fi of its decade. Perhaps the only artifact that truly dates it to the overbearing eco-centric message of its era is the sporadic music, two songs by hippie folk singer Diane Lampert that serve, I suspect, more to create a female presence in the piece than to drill home the film's conservationist message, which is quite effectively conveyed without high-handed recrimination as is.

In some faraway future, there are no forests left on Earth, and the only natural reserves remain in special domes on spaceships around the solar system, where American officials sent them until such a time when Earth could thus be repopulated. Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is part of a four-person crew manning one of these spaceships, but he's the only one who seems to give a damn about the forests themselves -- so much so that when the U.S. turns its back on the forest reclamation project, ostensibly because the synthetic world on Earth turns out not to need any help from Mother Nature anymore -- Lowell goes renegade, commandeering one forest dome and making a break for the outer reaches of the solar system. But just as turn-about on the government's part isn't thrown in to create a platform for era-specific political rhetoric, so too is Lowell's character given a sense of universality: No matter how high-minded your ideals, life is still very long, and very lonely, when your only company is two drones that talk with lights, movement, and shuttering flaps instead of words.

I don't know how Silent Running was omitted in a childhood by all accounts overrun with sci-fi classics, but if you, like me, have somehow neglected this sleeper cult film along the way, do yourself a favour and treat yourself to the seedling from which so much of our great sci-fi in the last four decades first bloomed.

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