Silent Running  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Silent Running is a 1972 science fiction film directed by Douglas Trumbull and starring Bruce Dern. It was made with a very limited budget but has since achieved a cult following. The science and technology depicted in Silent Running are not always plausible, but Trumbull's special effects are on par with those he created for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the melancholy message is considered by some to be very powerful. Unusual for a science fiction film, the soundtrack contains two songs — "Silent Running" and "Rejoice in the Sun" — written by Peter Schickele and Diane Lampert and performed by Joan Baez.


The movie depicts a future in which all plant life on Earth has been made extinct, and only a few specimens have been preserved in enormous, greenhouse-like geodesic domes attached to a fleet of American Airlines "Space Freighters" positioned just outside the orbit of Saturn. Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is part of the four person crew aboard the Valley Forge, one of the 2,000 foot-long freighters, and is the resident botanist / agronomist / ecologist dedicated to preserving the forests for their eventual return to Earth, and the reforestation of the planet. In constant disagreement with his crewmates over the objective of their mission (they being more anxious to return to Earth after a one-year tour of duty), Lowell spends his time in the forests, cultivating the plant and animal life within them.

When orders come from Earth to jettison and destroy the domes (with nuclear charges), and return the freighters to commercial service, Lowell opts instead to save the last remaining forests in existence. After four of the six domes on the Valley Forge are jettisoned and destroyed, Lowell kills one of his crewmates in a struggle (which leaves him seriously injured) and manages to trap the other two crew members in a dome that he jettisons and destroys. Enlisting the aid of the ship's three service robots (drones), Lowell stages a fake premature dome detonation and a cargo bay explosion as a ruse, and sends the Valley Forge careening away from the space freighter fleet, towards Saturn, in an attempt to hijack the ship and flee with the last forest dome.

Injured and alone with the three drones, Lowell reprograms them to perform surgery on his leg.

Still in communication with the rest of the fleet, Lowell is informed that the Valley Forge is on a collision course with Saturn's rings, and there is nothing he can do to stop the catastrophic event. The ship will likely be destroyed. With communications failing due to the distance now between the Valley Forge and the rest of the fleet, the ship passes through the rings of Saturn. The three drones are outside the ship on maintenance duty, when Drone 3 (Louie) is blown away from the ship, leaving two remaining drones. The ship, and the precious dome, emerge undamaged on the other side of the rings. Totally alone, Lowell and the drones set out into deep space, away from the fleet, on a quest to maintain the forest. During the trip, Lowell befriends the drones, renaming them Huey, Dewey and Louie (Drone 02, 01 and 03 respectively), teaching them to plant trees and play poker (in a memorable scene). However, Lowell's conscience sets in, as he instructs the drones to bury the crewmate he killed in the dome. With thoughts of the human toll he has taken to save the last forest, Lowell is horrified when he realises that his forest is dying from some unknown cause. Desperate, he rushes to the dome, badly damaging Huey in an accident with one of the ship's buggies. Repairs are unsuccessful, the forest is dying, and Lowell begins to come to the unsettling conclusion that his mission to save the forest has failed.

After weeks alone in space, faint radio chatter is heard from a rescue party mounted from the Valley Forge's sister ship, the Berkshire, who have located the freighter after a long search. Finally able to communicate with Lowell, they inform him that they will be able to reach him within six hours — he must jettison the dome — but not detonate the nuclear charge, as it is too dark to do so safely. Perhaps somewhat belatedly, given his botanical background, Lowell now realises that what was killing the forest was the lack of sunlight. With little time to work, he wires up several banks of grow lights to simulate sunlight, and instructs the last healthy drone, Dewey, to "just maintain the forest." Realising that his crime will be uncovered when the Berkshire finds an undamaged ship and a buried crew member, Lowell jettisons the last dome to safety with the words "take good care of the forest, Dewey." With the Berkshire only two hours away from docking, Lowell and the damaged Huey are sitting down, facing each other, while Lowell arms the last six nuclear charges. Prepared to destroy himself to atone for his crime, and ensure the preservation of the last dome, Lowell says to Huey "When I was a kid, I put a note into a bottle, and it had my name and address on it. And then I threw the bottle into the ocean. And I never knew if anyone ever found it." With that, Lowell destroys the Valley Forge with the last of the onboard nuclear charges.

The final, poignant scene is of a well-lit forest greenhouse drifting into space, tended by the sole remaining drone with a battered watering can, with a musical accompaniment from Joan Baez.

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