Silent Running

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 no recovery.

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 utterly useless.

Phil Freeman