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Silent Running

Silent Running on DVD

Silent Running is a gentle and rather poetic tale about the need to protect our environment - and how hugging trees overzealously can turn you into a real whacko.

It's also a nifty directorial debut for Douglas Trumbull, special effects wiz and movie technology visionary.

Bruce Dern stars as Freeman Lowell, a botanist caring for some of the earth's last remaining forests that have been stored in domes and sent into space aboard three spaceships orbiting in the vicinity of Saturn.

When word comes from the evil corporate or government types in charge of the project (who else would it be by evil corporate or government types?) that the domes are to be jettisoned and destroyed so the ships can be put back into active service, Lowell revolts. He kills his three companions, a happy go lucky gang that in an different locale would have been car crazies.

When queried, he makes up a story about an onboard accident as the reason his compatriots are gone and why the final dome hasn't been destroyed - then hunkers down as the ship passes through Saturn's rings and continues into deep space beyond.

Lowell reprograms two maintenance droids (do we detect inspiration for R2D2 here?) to become his servants and companions, and to help him tend the last forest. But his conscience and the isolation (mostly his conscience) start to make him go crazy.

Silent Running means well, and it's a good movie to watch - and while many would say its environmental message is even more relevant today than it was in 1971 (and perhaps it is), the movie beats you over the head with it, and this gets in the way of the story itself - the character study of Freeman Lowell.

Oh, well, it's still a legitimate guilty pleasure and really does belong in the DVD library of every sci-fi film fan.

Universal has unleashed a terrific DVD with this release, one that's well worth owning. The picture, which is presented in anamorphic widescreen (16x9 TV compatible), is for the most part very good - though there are some grainy sequences. Fortunately, the good images far outnumber the bad ones.

The audio is Dolby Digital 2 channel mono, though on our home theater we were pleased to "see" the audio came out of the center front speaker, where it should. Sound quality is okay; this is a movie that concentrated on its visuals and not its sound, like so many other films, and it shows.

The extras give excellent insight into the film. We were flabbergasted to learn that it was made for only a million dollars - and that to cut costs many of the special effects were performed live on a soundstage rather than achieved through optical effects. These front projection shots include the Valley Forge passing near Saturn, which we had assumed were beautiful optical shots in the tradition of 2001: a space odyssey.

It turns out that 2001 did have a lot to do with the effects (Trumbull was one of the special effects supervisors on that Stanley Kubrick masterpiece), but in the potential for front projection rather than its extensive use of expensive opticals.

You'll also learn that the film was actually shot on board the aircraft carrier Valley Forge, appropriately enough!

All of this info comes courtesy of "the making of Silent Running," and "Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull," a pair of featurettes. There's also a conversation with Bruce Dern in which he lovingly recalls the filming what he considers one of the best movie experiences he's had, "Douglas Trumbull: Then and Now" - an interview with Trumbull himself where he talks about his visions and his frustrations with Hollywood and how they never seem to quite get the amazing innovations (Showscan, for instance) he's pioneered. There's also a running commentary with Trumbull and Dern, production notes and cast/crew info, and the trailer.

In all, a good package that does tribute to an important science fiction movie.

Silent Running, from Universal Home Video
90 min. anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 TV compatible, Dolby Digital mono
Starring Bruce Dern
Produced by Michael Gruskoff,
Written by Deric Washburn & Mike Cimino and Steve Bochco, Directed by Douglas Trumbull


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Updated May 13, 2006