Back in 1972, worrying about the environment wasn't a sign of responsibility and sophistication like it is now - it was a bit weird, strictly for hippies. Although scientists already suspected that global warming was taking place and knew that serious damage was being caused to forests by pollution, ordinary people didn't take this concern very seriously. The notion of an Earth with no surviving plant life was very much the stuff of science fiction. And so we come to Silent Running, which posits just such a scenario - one in which the only remaining plants are tended in huge biodomes attached to spaceships in the orbit of Saturn. But when the government wants to recall those ships for commercial service, the domes come under threat.

Silent Running's strength is in the elegant way it combines its big idea with a very human story. Bruce Dern is Freeman, an ecologist who has devoted his whole working life to caring for the domes. Not only does he have a completely different philosophical take on the importance of the plants from anyone else, he is emotionally attached to their welfare, and his desperation to save them leads him to do terrible things. Yet though he might be seen as being in the grip of an obsession, he is never portrayed as a monster. He is all too aware of the terrible moral dilemma he faces, which makes him a fascinating protagonist.

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This kind of thoughtful, gently paced science fiction doesn't always go down well with a modern audience. It's very different from the action and morally straightforward heroics we've come to associate with the genre. But Silent Running's beautiful cinematography will appeal to anyone, and its special effects have dated well. Director Douglas Trumbull had previously worked as special effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it was in that capacity that he started developing the Saturn sequences seen here. Though more modest in scope, the film does manage to capture some of the splendour of Kubrick's vision.

More problematic is the soundtrack, which has dated badly and will make some modern audience members cringe or outright laugh, though there's no doubting the sincerity behind it. This is unfortunate because viewers need to make allowances in their relationship with the central character as his sanity is threatened by extended periods of isolation (reminiscent of Duncan Jones' recent Moon). His 'relationship' with the three service drones who remain his companions is potentially comic but provides a touching insight into a fragile individual, and many viewers will find that they cannot resist projecting personalities onto Huey, Dewey and Louie either. The drones certainly seem to appeal to children, who may find this more accessible than a lot of more recent genre work.

After all this time, Silent Running is interesting primarily as a curiosity, but it's also an important reminder of early warnings we were perhaps too happy to ignore. As such, it reminds us of one of the purposes of science fiction, and it remains an important contribution to the genre.

Reviewed on: 17 Jun 2009
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Silent Running packshot
An ecologist balks at the idea that Earth's last surviving plant life, preserved in space greenhouses, should be destroyed.
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Director: Douglas Trumbull

Writer: Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino

Starring: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint

Year: 1972

Runtime: 89 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US

Festivals:

Glasgow 2011

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If you like this, try:

2001: A Space Odyssey
Moon
Sunshine