Directed by Douglas Trumbull, who was primarily a special effects supervisor, Silent Running had its roots in the director’s work on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Trumbull had done the special effects on that film, but while he respected the film and Kubrick, he felt that 2001 was quite cold. For that reason, he looked for a way to make a film on a similar topic, developing his own science-fiction project as a director and taking a more human angle. In an ironic twist, when the film was released in Italy it was sold as a “sequel” to 2001 under the title 2002: La Seconda Odissea.
As Trumbull developed the film that would become Silent Running, initially Michael Cimino and the other screenwriter, Deric Washburn, had a go at the script. They ended up with a co-screenwriting credit with Steven Bochko. It’s unknown how much Cimino actually wrote, as they were only known to take credit that wasn’t quite due.
It was very much a hippie movie, falling into the set of films Universal made after the success of Easy Rider, where they gave young filmmakers around $1,000,000 to make a film (the others were Two–Lane Blacktop, The Hired Hand, The Last Movie, Taking Off and American Graffiti.) It’s about Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), who has been asked to destroy the last of Earth’s ecosystem, in the form of the plants stored in a greenhouse aboard his spaceship.
For what is essentially a bottom of the double bill alongside The Andromeda Strain, Silent Running has stood the test of time while some others from that era have not. It’s an environmentalist science fiction film, not unlike Soylent Green, and those themes remain relevant, for one thing. It’s one of best science fiction films made in the ‘70s, really helped by the fact that Trumbull knew how to make believable special effects. Everything was done in-camera. The three drone robots, Huey, Dewey and Louie, were operated by multiple amputees. The model work is still some of the greatest, not least because it was done on about a tenth of the budget of 2001. It has visuals that you really won’t forget—and it’s also a very moving film that asks very deep questions. Even the songs, which are all by Joan Baez, and the score by Peter Schickele still work.
While it’s not as influential as 2001, the influence of Silent Running can be felt in a lot of science-fiction films, obviously including Wall-E and Duncan Jones’ Moon. It was far more influential on Star Wars than 2001 was, for example, especially when it comes to R2-D2. At on point Lucas got in touch with Trumbull and let him know about the similarities, which he was fine with. Red Dwarf owes a lot to it as well.
It’s a pretty dark movie, including the ending, but it still works really well. It’s pacy at 89 minutes long—and it’s a testament to how good Bruce Dern is as an actor, because for almost the whole film it’s just him and the three robots. It takes a strong actor to hold up a film that way. He’s likeable, but can also be intensity when that’s what the character needs. This came out the same year as The King of Marvin Gardens, so it was a very good year for Dern.
This 4K re-release includes a commentary by Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw, the original commentary track from Trumbull and Dern, isolated music and effects track, a visual essay by writer and filmmaker John Spira, a new documentary with film music historian Jeff Bond about the film’s score, and on-set making-of documentary from 1975 that was probably shown on TV at the time, some archival interviews with Trumbull plus one with Dern, the original trailer, and a behind-the-scenes image gallery. The booklet features essays from Barry Forshaw and Peter Tonguette.