“They think you are a freak!” read the placards left over from the abandoned climate change protest… And, no, they weren’t necessarily about my paranoid self – it was instead both God and the planet that were being treated as a freak in a world at odds with its own spirituality and the treatment of Planet Earth itself. God as freak. Earth as freak. Both as one and also a freak! And so, they treat it as such.
The movie Silent Running (1972) is a post-Apocalyptic look at the threat of possible climate change leading to mass extinction while its star is the vastly underappreciated and underrated actor Bruce Dern (1936-). This man who is often remembered for playing unhinged characters or psychopaths in his early film career suffered a tragedy in his life while still only a young family man.
And his moving performance in the incredibly affecting science fiction movie Silent Running pays homage to that tragedy as Dern gives one of his best performances… Coming Home (1978) and Nebraska (2013) his most celebrated award nomination-wise.
The fact that Mother Earth is essentially God – that God is the planet since it the cradle where man and his spirituality was in essence born – is one for debate. We would not be here were it not for God the planet Earth…
It is our reality and one in crisis, if we are to believe the weather and nature encroaching civilisation in terms of pandemics… But those who believe in God don’t believe, or at least recognise this God-given crisis despite the so-called all-embracing philosophy of hypocritical ‘Christian’ politicians and citizens who are more concerned with building edifices in stone or making a quick buck and impressing their mates as both a rejection of the planet’s problems and, funnily enough, God at the same time. Buddhists can contemplate all they want, while Christians may pray all they want… physical action remains restrained by no real consensus or unilateral action worldwide to the nth degree. Good intentions often lead to the town dump… I’m getting to Silent Running… which by the way was the inspiration for the title of the 1984 debut single song Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground) by the band Mike and the Mechanics. “I remember that film so well,” said the band’s founder Mike Rutherford (1950-) about his reason to homage the title…
And so fewer people turned out for the climate change protests last week – or was that last year – as the world heads towards the prophecy of Silent Running and to a degree the Bible’s End of Days which is so revered and a prophecy and self-fulfilment about the lazy way of paying lip service to a future for the children we keep producing today…It is not just the political hypocrisy but laziness and continued complacency as well not to replenish the Earth/God and keep it in stasis is the dystopian future on the cards. Even those who do not believe in God are as a result God themselves anyway… They too can also choose to cop out on helping the community and eco-system of this failing ark.
Bruce Dern plays a nature lover who is one of four crew who operate a space freighter, one of a small fleet, which carries a number of domes, which each contain the last of the plants and foliage and fauna which once covered planet Earth – or just the United States – in the hope that one day the ecologically devastated planet may be replenished once again with the samples of flora and fauna kept in space.
The film’s credit sequence opens with shots of snails and tortoises at home in their shells within the dome remind us that Earth and man should remain as one at home forever with nature on Earth… there is no reason to reach further despite the social norm that we should all grow up and leave the cradle of home! Just don’t destroy it first as there may be nowhere else to go…
Dern’s character is named Freeman Lowell, and he is free in terms of his embrace of nature, as he loves and tends the gardens of the domes on board the space freighter named Valley Forge… Lowell is also the French boy’s name for young wolf and as we know wolves are known for their social skills and caring for its own community as a part of its nature. But like man seems to have sadly reached, the wolf has no insight into the possible predicament of the future of the Earth itself.
It is said that most of the fleet of space freighters which are mentioned in the movie are named after Recreation Parks in the United States… As for Lowell’s companions, they prefer to tackle the boredom of everyday life on board by racing their motorised carts roughshod over and through Dern’s carefully tended garden… as they also play poker like a pack of jokers. How did the Earth come to this we wonder? Or do we already really know?
Dern’s garden is the Earth’s garden, as it is a microcosm, and the carts which mow down his flowers are a metaphor of man’s indifference to nature or the fine balance which exists where each tree or plant destroyed maybe the one that sends things over the tipping point in terms of homeostasis for the planet… And that also goes for the human being as Dern’s temper or nature within himself is tied directly to God/Earth.
To paraphrase the Bible, it told us that man must replenish the Earth to sustain and maintain but in Silent Running the human race has not acted in time, even if they care enough to save the flora and fauna, they still philosophically are not attuned to the reality of the planet and it remains self-absorbed by hedonism and self-interest on board the Valley Forge…. Those who dismiss the Bible and the fact that Noah lived to be 950 years old and whose idea to put all the animals on an ark, as opposed to the domes in Silent Running, must admit there is wisdom and certain lessons to be learnt. Whoever wrote the thing weren’t total dummies… Except this wisdom is at odds with itself in the premise of Silent Running. And this goes back to God/Earth as freak…
“I suggest you look deep inside yourself…” says Dern who waits for the day that the powers that be on Earth will recall the space freighters finally back home for replanting…
“You’re dreaming” Dern is told by one of his ‘buddies’ or fellow crew members who tells him the real world must suffer “cut-backs” and there is no going back to the Earth the way it originally was in terms of nature and as a garden… Since this was filmed in early 1971, it is a lament for Nixon’s dismantling of The Great Society in America… It is however set far into the future and I guess they’re all eating seaweed or Soylent Green (1973), since there will be no cattle to slaughter which only produced so much methane that only heated the planet, while wildly cutting down the Amazon was only the beginning of the end… Hopefully, technology will find an answer and we can grow meat! Hydroponics will do the rest.
Dern and his crew receive the transmission from Earth that all the domes are to be released into space and then destroyed by nuclear bombs due to those cut-backs… No-one cares on Earth anymore, at least the politicians, as there appears to be a new normal without flora and fauna as the Department of Parks and Recreation will never re-open again. New normal and complacency leads to further acceptance of a possible dystopian outcome which will happen not in terms of a growing glacier encroaching on our future but a melting one.
There is the introduction of one of a couple of songs by folk singer Joan Baez (1941-) who sings about a man “doomed by his innocence” as we are also introduced to the mini-robots or drones Huey, Dewey and Louis, named after Donald Duck’s nephews, who help Dern tend his garden and maintain the freighter without question and with a benign acceptance of their limited world. They do not speak and are like mute children as they contain essentially the same innocence. Like male honey bees, they do not sting and are essentially helpless. They are the children within the microcosm of the domes of Silent Running who will eventually inherit the garden. At least an individual drone…
“This happens to be nature’s gift” says Dern about a cantaloupe/rockmelon which he eats every morning taken from the garden and the fruits of his labour.
“To a celibate, maybe” he is taunted in return and Dern then retorts that the world which remains on Earth and the people are the same everywhere… a corrupted desert of nature and with a neglected soul: “There is no more beauty, there is no more imagination. Nobody cares.”
And so, his crew mates prepare to destroy the last of God’s bounty… Possibly to its future detriment and short-sightedness and possibly for someone to get richer or win another election… And Dern has what you would call a psychotic break in the face of a further holocaust in terms of Earth’s last remnants to its natural past… Few saw Hitler’s human holocaust coming … Dern stops the crew of the Valley Forge from destroying the domes and instead commits manslaughter in a kind of self-defence of the plants and animals. By attempting to keep what was once the beauty and innocence of the natural world he must destroy that element within himself… It perhaps shows there will never be harmony within nature by its very essence. The madness is that Dern cannot return to his own planet or even return the plants and animals in his lone human care as he takes the Valley Forge out of harm’s way and hides in the rings of Saturn where he is silent running. There is something out there and perhaps it hides in the rings of Saturn… and the original script for Silent Running apparently had aliens out there too in those very rings somewhere as they board the Valley Forge and take a selfie at the end of the movie with one of the little drone robots… but that version of the script was never made. Dern is the now morally tainted and compromised rebel and visionary whose only halo is the rings of Saturn themselves in this future shock of a movie. “Tell them it is not too late…” sings Joan Baez.
Early 1970s America with social unrest in the shadow of the Nixon government and cut-backs and a hero who is doomed for a short time to live alone in his garden with only the robots for company sounds like man on Earth – imperfect and mortal. It is a bleak vision which shows that despite the fact a robot may keep a man company and nature may be some sort of solace… he cannot live with himself alone, as it is cold comfort to reject the whole world which has already rejected himself and its very own nature, or what was then seen in Silent Running as little as a façade of nature to be left to die and discarded for a new bleak and soulless order… it is a Godless Earth which doesn’t deserve the garden Dern and his robots have tended…
I cried as a kid the first time I saw Silent Running. It was a film which deeply resonated with me as a child under twelve-year-old who drew pictures about the evils of pollution which was taught in class… Tears were running down my face as the last robot or drone is left like a solitary child to tend the garden once Dern has succumbed to the plot devices and the irony he is seen as a hero on Earth despite his so-called crimes against nature as he lies to save the last dome. All to the accompaniment of Baez’s beautiful voice singing “… in the sun!”
If you are not embalmed and buried but instead are lovingly incinerated and ground up into little pieces of dust by those who cared on Earth for you… Anyway, I asked a close teenage relative about the failure of the climate change protest in our city and said people her age don’t really care to protest anymore as it is obvious no-one is listening, as I listened and then she promptly went back to her screen and social media… I wasn’t valid, nor vitally important as an older man who obviously was one of those who led the planet down this destructive path of self-interest and a disparagement of nature… But will her generation pull their collective fingers out, or be caught up in the same vicious cycle of having to spend all of their time earning a living to pay the rent and food or a mortgage and children? Homeostasis on the planet for the individual is obviously desirable both physically and socially, but the means of this will possibly remain unchanged in the near future as people struggle daily while they neglect the planet’s homeostasis and it is not due to ignorance. It is not too late now but it’s too late in Silent Running…
“We are set in stone” a Christian woman said to me about their church as I passed it one morning as I then wondered about those who built the pyramids and how all things will eventually return to dust… The same self-delusion of looking for God in the wrong place when it is everywhere to be seen… And there’s not enough time in our lifespan anyway, so why bother?
I watched the Angelina Jolie smokejumper movie Those Who Wish Me Dead (2012) and it drew me back to the movie Red Skies of Montana (1952) where one hard-working smokejumper has put out a blaze and says in gung-ho fashion: “We fought a fire so big, it plum set the North Pole melting” while a disillusioned older fire-fighter talks in metaphors about fighting fires as well as World War Two when he asks: “Why’d we put our lives on the line?” To save humanity and nature and natural humanity… for homeostasis.
Silent Running is poles apart from Red Skies of Montana in terms of their epic settings and yet there is something to be said about the fight which is ahead for the planet and it will be never ending… The director of Silent Running would later be responsible for helping to creat the dystopian imagery of Blade Runner (1982).
Silent Running was directed by Douglas Trumbull (1942-), who would also direct Brainstorm (1983) many years later. He would also create some mind-boggling rides for Universal studios. Trumbull said he would never work under anyone else again after he helped do effects work for Stanley Kubrick (1928-99 in sleep of heart attack) on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). If you’re a conspiracy hound, perhaps Trumbull helped Kubrick fake the moon landing the following year! Certainly, the cheap effects on Silent Running are convincing.
Trumbull started a film entitled Saturation 70: An Ecological Horror Fantasy in 1969 which remained unfinished due to a lack of funds. But the premise that the world was in trouble in terms of pollution, among other things, was present in this mind. Saturation 70, incidentally was to star the five-year-old son of Rolling Stone Brian Jones (1942-67 drowned) whose name was Julian Brian-Jones (1964-) as a child lost in a garbage filled wasteland… Trumbull wouldn’t direct Silent Running until Universal picked up his original story line and produced it on the relatively small budget of one million dollars.
I mentioned the film to special effects wizard John Dykstra (1947-) in 2001 as he promoted the Spiderman movies, warning me: “Great power requires great responsibility” as a part of the sales schtick – my spider senses sadly failed to tingle as a heavily medicated journalist… I told him that Silent Running was a favourite and yet he dismissed its effects as some sort of embarrassment. The model of the space freighter used was made up of cannibalising dozens and dozens of model aircraft and tank kits and was a couple of dozen feet in length. You can see how Dykstra went on to do Star Wars with his work on Silent Running as an example. He said he never had any further contact with Trumbull and that the director was on his own trip out there on theme parks at the time.
Dern has been quoted to have been impressed by Trumbull’s vision for Silent Running but it still flopped at the box office since it was far too ahead of its time in an era obsessed with sex and violence and the vanity of the stars instead of the still vain dream of saving the Earth from the indifference which infects even those youngsters who want change to happen in the present. My seven-year-old niece Jessie was having too much fun being a little girl to yet come to grips with her generation’s burden or the planet’s future when I asked her and this is the beauty of the drone at the end of the movie.
The innards of Silent Running were shot in a 32-shoot in early 1971 on an actual decommissioned aircraft carrier named the USS Valley Forge which served in Vietnam and was docked in a shipyard in Long Beach shortly being scrapped thereafter in October 1971. Meanwhile, the inside of the domes themselves were shot in an aircraft hangar in Van Nuys, also in California as a part of that shoot… Trumbull created an ingenious and believable space freighter on a shoe-string for this vision of a movie.
Scenes of the domes detaching from the freighters were used in a Night Gallery episode entitled The Different Ones in Season Two of the show in December 1971 before Silent Running was released months later in early 1972.
“Ugly! Ugly! Ugly! Freak! Freak! Freak!” some children taunt the teenage son of actor Dana Andrews (1909-92 heart failure and pneumonia) who was “deformed at birth” in this Night Gallery episode where the only answer is to send this boy to another planet or community where he finally says: “I feel as though I belong”. That freak aspect again. But that happy ending was only after the option of suicide was suggested to Andrews by government helplines although they said they didn’t officially enforce it!
As for the drones or robots in Silent Running, they were played by amputees without lower limbs and they are incredibly convincing as they are the cute forerunners to R2-D2 in the Star Wars movies. As for the screenplay, it was a combination of the work of Deric Washburn (1937-) and Michael Cimino (1939-2016 no cause given), who would write The Deer Hunter (1978) together while the third credited screenwriter is Canadian author Mordecai Richler (1931-2001 cancer) whose award-winning movie Joshua Then and Now (1985) inspired me to write a fake diary in the same vein proposed in the movie in the hope of post-humous notoriety. It backfired when someone read it before I died!
Silent Running was mentioned as the inspiration for the concept of the space-ship used in Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The music score meanwhile was by Peter Schickele (1935-) who co-wrote the two Baez songs with lyricist Diane Lampert (1924-2016) while parts of his soundtrack use a contemplative beat which reminds me of the opening beats of the song The Raven by The Alan Parson’s Project which was partially recorded in California and released in 1975.
“When I was a kid, I put a note into a bottle and I threw the bottle into the ocean,” says Dern, who has been found by Earth’s authorities hiding in the rings of Saturn as a part of an unwanted rescue mission. He has no choice but to release the dome into space to save it and decides to destroy himself rather to face the hypocrisy of life back on Earth. Dern says that he didn’t know if anyone found the bottle he was talking about… This message contained in the bottle of Silent Running is a plea for sanity to prevail before it is too late… Dern will use an atomic bomb in a grand gesture of suicide to cover the escape of the renegade dome. He tells the last drone, who he leaves to tend the garden with enough electric light to keep the plants alive: “I can’t do it anymore… Things just haven’t worked out for me.” And when Dern hugs the drone, it is perhaps one of cinema’s most heart-breaking moments as the tears well up Dern’s eyes… And these are tears of real lost innocence forever captured on screen as the final scene where the child-like drone tends the garden and innocently using a watering can… It is said that battered watering can which obviously belonged and was well loved by a little girl was used said to have originally belonged to his daughter Diane Elizabeth Dern (1960-62), who died aged only eighteen months when she drowned or fell into a swimming pool. Dern’s younger daughter Laura possibly used it too… or it may be just legend. It is heartbreak nonetheless. The ending therefore is a comfort for those who don’t believe in heaven as it is forever a snapshot of an innocent in a garden of the heavens of hope.
Laura Dern (1967-) would play a botanist in a few Jurassic Park movies like her father plays a botanist in Silent Running. Bruce Dern’s tragedy of what lies beneath our feet is not only in terms of the planet and that is why his acting is so personal at the climax of this movie.
Bruce Dern, along with the mother of Laura, actress Diane Ladd (1935-), have adjoining stars on The Hollywood Walk of Fame. Laura won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Marriage Story (2019).
Perhaps the gardens and crops on Earth will eventually be tended by robots as they alleviate humanity of the burden of working mind-numbingly menial jobs in the mass production of whatever needs to be produced and more time can be spent on healing our souls and the soul of God/Earth. This use of robots is hinted at in a scene in the post-Apocalyptic movie I Am Mother (2019) … And then mankind can truly build further technology and be able to look at the healed and/or untraumatized self in the mirror … and there truly will be hope for the future children whose planet today hangs in the balance. I hope and think technology will see us through.
In the meantime, Silent Running is a bleak look at the individual who has no child and who only wants to leave footprints in the sand and a bit of ground up dust rather than a negative influence forever on the planet… “Like the forest is your child” sings Baez and there is a double-edged meaning to these lyrics as it dares to dream that children will be running across their lawns in the year 2087 – that there will be lawns our current world would like to guarantee. Perhaps we’ll live to 950 after all! … “Tell them to rejoice in the sun…” or replenish as what we sow on the Earth in the present we will reap in the future. Otherwise pretend like you’re an alien from the future and take another selfie for social media… and forget there was ever a problem. And God is love as a universal concept should reign supreme. Or as the Monty Python crew cried out in Life of Brian (1979) to the other spiritual or political factions: “Splitters!”