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He is Bruce Dern.
He speaks for the trees.
In the early 1970s, Hollywood went through one of its worst periods of
puling earnestness, constantly attempting to enlighten its audience about some social
problem or another. Silent Running is, like Soylent Green or The China Syndrome, so convinced of mankind's blithe march
toward self-destruction that it's decided the only way to get its point across is through
repeated hammer-blows to the viewer's skull.
It's a shame about this movie; it didn't start out as a farce. When the
viewer first sees the spaceships which are carrying the last of Earth's forests (under
geodesic domes) until they can be safely returned to the planet's polluted surface, it's a
compelling image. But the sight of Bruce Dern in a hooded robe, looking as messianic as
possible as he gently caresses his plants (at least we never actually see him cooing and
singing to them) launches the viewer into fits of sarcastic snickering from which there's
There are only four characters in Silent Running, and the
screenwriters (Michael Cimino and Steven Bochco) forgot to write three of them. Only Dern
is presented as a functioning, realistic human being. The other three exist solely to
belittle his concern for the plant life, when they're not actively destroying it by riding
go-carts through the forests. Why, they're so evil they actually complain about the smell
of Dern's fresh cantaloupes, while chowing down on synthetic foodlike substances that come
molded into geometric shapes! Clearly, there's no hope for the likes of them. Fortunately,
they get theirs, when Dern kills one of them with a shovel (in self-defense, of course),
and locks the other two into a forest-dome that's about to be jettisoned into space, and
nuked out of existence.
This leaves Dern (whose character is named Freeman--Silent Running
is nothing if not subtle) alone on the ship with three drone robots he names Huey, Dewey
and Louie. These three are the most sympathetic characters in the piece, if only because
the viewer sympathizes with the dwarves inside the robot-suits, who had to listen to
Dern's earnest crapola and never got to scream at him to just shut up, already. Of course,
they've got it easy; they don't have to put up with the Joan Baez songs on the soundtrack.
Dern doesn't have much to do, given the one-note nature of his
character, but he does everything he can. He plays his patented brand of crazy right to
the hilt. In every scene, his eyes bulge, and he holds back just a half-beat on his lines
to give the impression they're bursting out of him unbidden. He moves in quick jerks or
reacts with inappropriate broadness to any stimulus. It's a masterpiece of twitchery. It
serves only to undermine any feeling the viewer might have for his cause. When he launches
into his rant about how awful it is that there are no forests any more on Earth, he sounds
like every lunatic who's ever spieled from a subway-seat.
Silent Running is rated G. Perhaps its producers hoped it
would indoctrinate impressionable young children into the joys of tree-huggery. It's so
over-the-top, though, that even children would likely have a hard time stifling laughter.
As a time-capsule, it's mildly diverting; as farce, it's terrific; as a parable, it's
- Phil Freeman