Friday, June 06, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Silent Running (1972) *

G, 89 min.
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Writers: Deric Washburn, Mike Cimino, Steve Bochco
Starring: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint, Mark Persons, Cheryl Sparks

I was taken aback to learn just how bad this movie is. It’s one of those movies that, if you’re into science fiction at all, is just kind of there as what I assumed was a classic of the genre. I had even assumed that I had seen at least parts of it before, but I hadn’t. So I finally have seen it, and it is terrible.

Intended as some sort of environmental jolt to the system by special effects expert Douglas Trumbull, “Silent Running” plays more like the psychosis that runs through the brain circuitry of a nut who hides behind environmentalism as a shield to fool people into thinking he isn’t just plain nuts. Bruce Dern plays the nut in a rather inspired casting choice. I feel sorry for his fellow astronauts who really do nothing but play a little to inherit their demises that lack much in terms of ceremony.

But, I get ahead of myself. It’s the future. The Earth has depleted all of its forests, which only survive in space satellite arboretums sponsored by American Airlines of all companies. The program to keep these managed forests alive is rather unceremoniously shut down with only “to return our ships to commercial services” given as a rather weak reason to say goodbye to a unique natural resource of the planet. I find it hard to believe that crazy Bruce is the only advocate left for these forests that the government must’ve spend untold billions on to preserve in space.

The reasoning behind the film’s plot is hardly its biggest problem, however. Spending more than an hour of film time with just the crazy guy and a couple of robots that he befriends to help him run the ship is probably the film’s biggest weakness. Dern tries his darnedest, but there just isn’t enough here to sustain such a length of time with essentially nothing happening. That’s not to mention the fact that he hijacks this ship with a plan of what? Floating around space with a forest for all of eternity? And since when can’t a botanist figure out that without the sun vegetation will die? It seems to take him weeks to figure this out, when sunlight should have been a constant part of the care protocol for the forest.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think this whole movie was supposed to be some sort of joke. I mean all those Joan Baez songs written specifically for the film couldn’t have been more hokey. They were love ballads to plants played out over tender images of crazy Bruce and a couple of early Dr. Who castoff robots planting new trees. Please tell me the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys got their crack at this one. That’d be a movie worth watching.

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