Set in the year 2008 (when 2008 was actually the future!), Silent Running revolves around a giant American Airlines Space Freighter called Valley Forge.
The ship is one of many that are carrying the last surviving forests – taken from the now-barren surface of the planet Earth, following a nuclear catastrophe.
The ships are virtual Gardens of Eden, with lush plants and cascading waterfalls in which deer, rabbits, turtles and frogs live without worry.
Astro-Botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern, possibly the last man you would expect to be cast as a tree-hugger) is among the crewmen who tend to this habitat and care for it with the help of three robot drones he has named Huey, Dewey and Louie (after the Disney cartoon duck triplets).
Ever the dreamer, Freeman looks forward to the day when Valley Forge will receive the order to return home and replant Earth’s forests.
These hopes are dashed to pieces when their long-awaited orders finally come through, telling the crewmen to destroy the biospheres and the forests as the experiment is to be terminated.
Freeman can’t accept this and is forced into a showdown with the other crewmen, who want to follow the orders and return home. He kills his colleagues and moves the ship’s orbit off into deep space as he silences the ship’s radios.
He has now gone into ‘silent running’ and must keep the ship together while fighting the rigours of outer space and avoiding another ship sent out to destroy Valley Forge‘s cargo.
Dern’s descent into quiet madness after thrice committing murder is impressively realised, as is the subtlety of the plot which was apparently lost on many critics at the time.
An unsung Science Fiction gem, Silent Running was the directorial debut of Douglas Trumbull, a visual effects designer who made his name by creating the mind-blowing visual effects for the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
His spaceship models here are infinitely more detailed than they were in 2001. Rather than smoothly polished plastic surfaces, there are pipes, bumps, and convolutions, all of which seem functional.
In this film, however, he downplayed visual effects wizardry in favour of a surprisingly moody and thoughtful story that was carried by Bruce Dern’s performance as the obsessed but honourable Freeman who preferred plants to people.
Trumbull shot most of his interiors aboard an abandoned World War II aircraft carrier which was awaiting scrapping at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, which not only makes realistic sense but also provides more solidity and detail than a studio set could, and – importantly – a lived-in feeling.
The aircraft carrier had been named the USS Valley Forge, and – in honour of the filming location – the space freighter in the film was given the same name.
The imaginative script was crafted by a writing team that included Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter) and Steven Bochco (creator of Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law).
The film was also notable for avoiding the typical choice of a spacey musical score in favour of a folk-styled soundtrack by Joan Baez.
Silent Running used a desolate possible future to make commentary on the problems of how humanity behaves, a trend reflected by other socially-minded early 1970s sci-fi films like Zero Population Growth (1972) and Soylent Green (1973).
The little drones (operated by four amputee actors) pre-date R2D2 and C3PO from Star Wars (1977), and the ecological message of the film was way ahead of its time.
Drone 01 (Dewey)
Drone 02 (Huey)
Drone 03 (Louie)