Visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull (The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, The Tree of Life, The Towering Inferno) finally got the chance to direct with this movie and sadly, he didn’t get to capitalize on it
Made for one million dollars, one-tenth the budget of Kubrick’s classic, this movie was helped by all the special effects know-how of Trumbull, who was not originally going to direct it. Lead actor Bruce Dern stated that Trumbull’s creative vision was equal to Alfred Hitchcock, who he had also worked with. And that made the director hot for the briefest of times, as it flopped at the box office.
Trumbull joked “It was just a great experience for me as a filmmaker, but I didn’t know that I was part of an experiment by Universal Studios…to see if it was possible to have a movie survive on word of mouth alone without an advertising campaign.*”
At some point in the future, all that is left of Earth’s ecosystem is floating in space. The crew is ordered to destroy the greenery by the faceless bureaucrats that run what is left of the world and they comply, all save Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern, The ‘Burbs, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, Coming Home), who has taken three service robots and gone into “silent running” around the rings of Saturn, keeping himself as sane as he can and what is left of Earth’s once lush forests blooming.
Written by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino (the two would go on to write The Deer Hunter and Cimino would spectacularly self-destruct with Heaven’s Gate) and Steven Bochco (who would go on to create L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues and more), this is a quiet tale of a man whose only companions are the industrial droids he renames Huey, Dewey and Louie**.
The effects in this movie are obviously the draw. The ship Valley Forge was reused on the show Battlestar Galactica years later and still held up as a great looking spaceship, even post-Star Wars. And the haunting soundtrack was by Peter Schickele, better known for doing classical music parodies under the name of P.D.Q. Bach.
Without this movie, we’d have no Mystery Science Theater 3000, as the idea of a man lost in space with only robots to talk to resonated with creator Joel Hodgson. And speaking of inspiration, Trumbull was asked by George Lucas to work on this movie, but passed. Lucas asked if he could use a droid in his film inspired by the robots in Silent Running and Trumbull agreed. Six years later, when 20th Century-Fox sued Universal, claiming that Battlestar Galactica was a ripoff of Star Wars, Universal countersued with the theory that Star Wars ripped off Silent Running.
This was a film I searched for most my childhood, as we couldn’t just grab a DVD or stream films back then. I always saw photos of it in Starlog and wondered what the robots would look like when they moved.
The Arrow Video release of this film has everything you ever wanted on this film and more. There’s a new 2K restoration from the original camera negative, approved by Trumbull that was created exclusively for this release. Plus, you get a new commentary track by critics Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw and one from Trumbull and Dern. There are also features with film music historian Jeff Bond on the film’s score, Jon Spira exploring the screenplay and Dern on his work in the movie. Plus, the artwork is by Aric Roper, who did the art for Sleep’s “Dopesmoker” album and an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring writing on the film by Barry Forshaw and Peter Tonguette. You can get it from MVD.
*Actually, this really was part of a Universal Studios experiment to try and recreate Easy Rider by giving a million dollars or less to young filmmakers and letting them have final cut. The other films are Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, Hopper’s The Last Movie, Forman’s Taking Off and Lucas’ American Graffiti.
**The three drones were played by four bilateral amputees (Mark Person as Dewey, Cheryl Sparks and Steven Brown (he’s also in the biker mover J.C.) as Huey and Larry Whisenhunt as Louie). That means they are either missing both arms or both legs. This was inspired by sideshow performer Johnny Eck. Also, in Italy, the drones are named after Paperino, Paperone and Paperina (Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge and Daisy Duck) because the names for Huey, Dewey and Louie in Italy are Quim, Quo and Qua. Therefore, calling them would have sounding like this; “Vieni qui, Qui,” which would be pretty weird, right?
Unfortunately, Trumbull’s directing efforts didn’t fare much better with 1983’s Brainstorm.