Silent Running is a weird film to talk about. It’s clearly a film that wants to be a response to 2001: A Space Odyssey, made in the 1970s in the wake of auteur films like Easy Rider. It’s also very clearly a film with something to say, which is cool as I really like science fiction that engages in social commentary. However, there is a bunch about Silent Running that doesn’t quite work.
The premise is that Earth’s environment is failing, and to provide a way to restore the environment, a group of space ships with environment domes are sent out to basically create a bunch of arks to preserve some of humanity’s biosphere until such a time where the Earth can. The film follows the crew of the USS Valley Forge, and in particular the crew botanist – Freeman Lowell. When the order comes down the line to eject and scuttle the habitat pods for a reason that is not explained, Lowell refuses, and when the rest of the crew decides to go along with the order, he’s forced to kill them and go on with the remaining habitat pod.
This is where the film’s promise is, and also where the film falls apart. This could be a great character piece with a character in isolation, (possibly) wracked with guilt, dependant on the robots crewing the ship to stay sane. This could have been a strong message piece with the crew torn into conflict over following their orders or going it alone, while the other ships follow orders (or appear to follow orders). The film instead tries to do both, and that’s where it falls apart.
The movie isn’t helped by the fact that the cast are a bunch of two dimensional characters. The rest of the ship’s crew are introduced in their standard crew jumpsuits, barreling through the habitat domes on what are effectively ATVs, running over the plants they’re supposed to to be protecting, while Lowell is wearing what is, in all appearances, white (or light grey) monastic robes, being a beard away from looking like Jesus Christ.
Further, Lowell appears to be the only person on this mission who actually cares about their goal, in spite of the opening of the film featuring a big solemn speech from the President about how important this mission is. Instead, the rest of the crew comes across like victims from a slasher film, as if they were intentionally written to be a bunch of jackasses so we don’t care or aren’t conflicted when Lowell kills them all.
Thus, the problem. The film would work as a character piece if the characters acted like people. Except they don’t. With the weight given to this mission by the President’s speech, it would seem like they wouldn’t shut down the mission without an explanation, and that the people on this mission would be volunteers. Except they do, and they apparently aren’t.
Further, after Lowell kills his crewmates, he actually doesn’t end up running silent, in spite of the film’s title. Instead he’s in almost constant communication with the other ships, denying the film the sort of hippy character study that I was expecting coming in. Further, it’s not particularly clear if there is any sort of space navy to stop Lowell if he were to to just go Major Tom and head out into the void with his ship’s cargo. The film depends on worldbuilding and characterization that it is unable to carry out.
The film tries to use tell-not-show to try to get around some of its budgetary limitations – especially when it comes to avoiding showing Earth, but it’s not very successful in that regard, instead posing too many questions. The ships appear to be freighters operated by American Airlines and the reason for scuttling the pods appears to be eliminating a navigation hazard, but if humanity is able to haul cargo within the star system, then why don’t we have O’Neill-Cylinder space colonies or terraformed settlements on Mars (particularly where mankind might drop off the habitat domes).
And, again, the government seems to take this mission incredibly seriously when the mission is launched, until it just isn’t. While this does seem like a silly objection to have within the first year of Trump’s administration, it’s also important to mention that what we’re seeing from Trump’s administration is not normal. And, even there, we can kinda see this crap coming – we knew Trump was an unpredictable loose cannon when he ran, we just didn’t expect him to win.
Ultimately, Silent Running is a science fiction film with a very important message when it comes to the importance of environmental conservation. It just gets across the message poorly, and suffers accordingly.