This movie was completed a year before I was born. It began production in 1969 and finished shooting in 1970—and it does try to capitalize on the whole flower child sentiment, accentuated by Joan Baez screeching through some terrible songs, with over the top verbroto that’s slightly off key in far too many places, to produce an lovely, artsy soundtrack that sounds akin to nails on a chalkboard. And today in a era when then the radical left has so completely hijacked a once noble environmental movement for their own ulterior motives (i.e. it’s more about putting government in charge of every aspect of our lives—and putting THEM in charge of that government— than anything actually having to do with preserving the environment. These self-appointmented elites want to flight-shame you into remaining as non-mobile as possible (easier to control you that way) while they fly on their private jets on their way to the microphones to lecture you about it (well, because they are the important people that need to be in charge of us deplorable little people, so they have no choice, you see), so yeah, it’s understandable why this environmentalist film might seem off-putting because, in 2020, we’re just sick of it. We’re sick of the lecturing, we’re sick of the hypocrisy—we’re sick of the lying. No rational thinking person truly believes that Earth will be uninhabitable within twelve years—unless you are so young and easily brainwashed, simply because you haven’t been around long enough to know what the rest of us already do—that they’ve been saying “we only have ten years left” for decades and decades and decades, and they haven’t been right yet. Even this classic, rather lovely, sci-fi film is guilty of that to a degree. It advocates that by the year 2000 (the year this film is set), Earth will be completely devoid of all vegetation—and last I checked, as of 2020, that hasn’t happened yet. So, it’s perfectly understandable why this film might seem off-putting in our current political environment, and why most of us (myself included) cheered seeing Ricky Garvais tell a bunch of self centered, jet hopping, limousine riding, mansion dwelling, self appointed Hollywood elites that that they “are in no position to lecture the public on anything!” Thank you!! All that said...
To appreciate this rather amazing film, you have to be willing to take a step back, take a breath, and examine it from a historical, dramatic, and filmmaking perspective. Remastered for blu-ray, this film is visually gorgeous. As I’m not quite old enough to have seen this in the theater, I had only seen bits of this movie on old fashioned, standard definition, square 4:3 TV—and it looked moderately okay, but not amazing. It was just...okay. Not terrible, but okay. Boy, did the ol’ square TV not do it justice! Typically, I’m not someone who is that overly impressed by sensational labels of “DIGITALLY REMASTERED!!” and “FULL HD!!” and now “4K ULTRA HD!!” (which to the human eye looks identical to regular 1080 HD, except for 4K TVs making all your older disks and broadcast TV look like crap). I always laugh at these sensational ads on DVDs (which are in old fashioned SD; DVDs are NOT HD) that try to convince you how terrible the DVD you’re watching looks compared to this awesome new thing we call blu-ray that we want you to buy (which is HD), and they do this with a split-screen of an image that looks awful juxtaposed with an image that looks great because it’s in “HD!!” Uh, no it’s not. It’s playing on the same standard definition DVD that you’re playing right now—and it still looks great, LOL! I’m not saying that there’s NO perceptible difference between SD and HD, but the sharpness of a picture has less to do with the sheer number of pixals than it does with the utilizing the proper medium it was intended to be shown on. For example, you can watch an old TV show on DVD on your old square TV which you still have upstairs (which doesn’t need as many pixels to have a sharp image as your HDTV requires) and that old show looks fantastic on your old TV with a sharp clear picture, whereas it might not look as sharp on your HDTV which requires more pixels, otherwise it looks soft and blurry. That show was captured and stored on standard definition equipment (i.e. video tape), compressed for broadcast, and meant to be shown on a standard definition television—and converting (remastering) it in HD might even make it look terrible, especially if it’s a sci-fi show with special effects in which its visual flaws are now more exposed, whereas they looked great before—on television. However, “Silent Running” was a theatrical film shot with movie quality lenses on 35 mm film, using miniatures that were crafted with far more detail than would have been required on television at the time. It’s original film source was ALREADY in “HD” (every tiny detail captured on that film via light, not pixels reinterpreted on video tape) and meant to be shown on a wide format, theatrical screen. Today, a 16:9 HD television displaying in 1080p is the closest thing we have to recreating that theatrical medium at home. This film represents an example of when remastering a film in high definition actually matters. An old square, low pixel TV simply cannot do it justice. “Silent Running” looks INCREDIBLE on blu-ray. On blu-ray, its 1970 visual effects absolutely hold up today.
Yes, young folks, a highly detailed, practical model that is well crafted, well designed, and captured with the right kind of lens and skilled lighting simply looks far more real than any CG image—because it IS real. No, it’s not a real spaceship, but it is a real object photographed on real film with real light. Yes, I know “real” may look strange to you when are only used to seeing video game-like imagery, which conditions you into believing that fake looks real and real looks fake. Well, this movie seen in its proper full glory is a visual masterpiece, demonstrating what a well crafted practical effect should actually look like. You totally buy these space-faring greenhouse freighters as real—both exterior and interior. Artificial gravity notwithstanding, the Valley Forge looks like a vessel which could actually be built in orbit with today’s technology. I was also extremely impressed with how authentic the interior sets of the American Airlines Space Freighter Valley Forge actually were. That’s because it was filmed aboard the REAL USS Valley Forge—a World War II aircraft carrier resently retired prior to filming. Its interiors were redressed with modern and futuristic paint, decor, and furnishings to give it an extremely authentic look (well, for a space freighter with artificial gravity in the year 2000.) And even the 70’s idea of a computerized bridge doesn’t look all that off-base from NASA’s space shuttle cockpit, which was designed in the 1970’s and was STILL FLYING in the year 2000, the same year this movie is set. So, no, it does NOT look all that dated—other than maybe the clothing and hairstyles—but even those are generic enough to be passable. The little droids are adorable—and also come off as sufficiently plausible. This film, beautifully modeled, beautifully set-dec’ed, and beautifully photographed is gorgeous to behold on blu-ray. Absolutely gorgeous.
Dramatically speaking, “Silent Running” isn’t nearly as preachy—or boring—as I was expecting it to be. The inept marketing of this film has never done it any favors, a complaint its director has in the behind-the-scenes interviews found in the Special Features. Universal spent almost nothing to promote it, believing that its pure visual spectical and a new “hit single” from Joan Baez (cringe) was all that was needed to bring people in by word of mouth. Didn’t happen. And the promotional blurbs about it that continue to be used to this day (i.e. the blurb on the back of this very blu-ray) would have you believe that this must be the dullest sci-fi movie ever made—basically implying that it’s two hours of watching a lonely guy talking to his plants and two droids who can’t even talk back. He’s just hippie environmentalist, living by himself in space and that’s it. Who would want to watch that?But that’s not what this film is at all. On the contrary, this movie is a dark, disturbing, Alfred Hitchcock style thriller. Shortened, this easily could have been an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, or even The Twilight Zone, minus any paranormal aspects.
Mild spoilers... Bruce Durn portrays a disturbly obsessed sociopath (Freeman Lowell) who kind of gives true, well meaning environmentalists a bad name—by MURDERING his entire crew, who were completely innocent. I never got the sense that the filmmakers or the actor were making him out to be a hero for doing so. With wild, psychotic eyes, Lowell goes out of his way to cover up his crime and justify the unjustifiable—while the crew of another ship is busy risking their lives trying to rescue him, while he lies to them making them believe that he and his crewmates are the victims of some tragic mishap that sent the Valley Forge off course. But, no, this psycho is a calculating Hitchcockian killer with an agenda. He’s kind of a Batman villain. Some of the best Batman villains are those whose motivations have kernals of nobility, but whose methods are so psychotic and destructive, Batman has to stop them. That’s kind of what happens here, only instead of Batman taking him out, he actually grows remorseful enough to take himself out. While the film is sympathetic to his his initial grievance (the protection of his greenhouse domes), it doesn’t make him out to be anything other than a nut who needs to be brought to justice. It’s actually a very engrossing and very sad tragedy—and even a cautionary tale to those who think as extremely as he does. (Unfortunately, they probably miss the whole point and see him as a hero!)
The movie does have its lapses in logic. I already mentioned that Earth supposedly has no vegetation left, but somehow supports a human population that sounds like a rather Star Trek-y utopia where there is no war, no desease, and no unemployment—and our lefty environmental protagonist doesn’t much care about that, because there aren’t enough trees left. He’s fine with murder and mayhem as long as there’s trees! But my point is, if ALL vegetation is gone on Earth, how is there any oxygen to breathe? You could rationalize some mechanical means of producing a breathable atmosphere and the film’s claim that the entire planet is a perfect 75 degrees no matter where you are would seem to imply that—but it’s a stretch to say the least. But just as strange, there seems to be no logical reason for this fleet of greenhouse ships to be cruising around Saturn! There’s no mention of colonies out this way (that would make sense then), but they are just cruising around the outer edges of the solar system for...reasons. I assume there are colonies out there, because these are cargo freighters taking cargo somewhere, but it’s never made clear. When the ships are recalled, they are ordered to release their greenhouse domes and nuke them for...reasons. Assuming you wouldn’t want to bring them back to Earth for harvesting, why nuke them? Maybe a fuel versus mass thing? Regardless, just release them. What’s the point of nuking them? And the dumbest thing of all is this expert bontanist can’t figure out why his plants are dying as he takes this ship farther and farther away from the sun! It occurs to him towards the end of the movie (I’ve been yelling at my TV screen for the past forty five minutes that you need the SUN!) He finally figures it out shortly before he offs himself. He caused their deterioration himself by steeling the ship and taking it beyond the sunlight’s reach. Yet another cautionary tale about those self-appointed elite who presume to know more than the rest of us—and don’t.
Still, you have to look at this film in historical terms. At the time this film was made, there were legitimate environmental issues that needed to be addressed. Any young folks who have been brainwashed into believing that it’s worse than it’s ever been (and the United States is to blame) are being deliberately lied to. In 1970, American cities had terrible problems with constant smog, filthy rivers and lakes. There are NO environmental problems in the UNITED STATES today that come anywhere close to what was happening fifty years ago. Companies WERE dumping filth into rivers and pumping huge noxious smoke stacks into the air completely unchecked. Rampant deforestation without replanting WAS taking place. So, at the time, these WERE issues that reasonable people were rightfully concerned about. And you know what? For the most part, we fixed them—in the United States. You know where it hasn’t been fixed? In leftist “utopias” such as the People’s Republic of China—where, yes, it is worse than it’s ever been. Dare I mention People’s Republic of San Francisco where the lack of sanitation is approaching third world status? But this country overall is far cleaner, far less poluted than it was in 1970. That’s simply a fact. Thus, the environmental concerns of 1970 were legitimate and made for good science fiction fodder.
But as I said, this movie isn’t trying to get in your face so much as it’s seeking to use the issue as a springboard to pull you into a creepy, psychological thriller—and character study. And on that level, it mostly succeeds. Meanwhile, on a visual level—it’s an absolute work of art—on a surprisingly low budget.
It’s worth a look.