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Film / Silent Running

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"Running silent in my sleep..."

Silent Running is an environmentally-themed 1972 science fiction film directed by Douglas Trumbull and starring Bruce Dern, Ron Rifkin, Cliff Potts, and Jesse Vint. Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, and Steven Bochco co-wrote the screenplay.

Sometime in the future, the environment of Earth has been destroyed, with the only remaining plant and animal life preserved in domed forests aboard American Airlines space freighters kept in orbit around Saturn. Freeman Lowell (Dern), a botanist onboard the freighter Valley Forge and apparently humanity's last environmentalist, tends to the forests religiously and hopes that they can one day be returned to Earth and used to restore it to its natural state.

When the decision is made to reassign the freighters and destroy the domes, Lowell becomes obsessed with protecting them. He kills his crewmates and escapes with the last dome, assisted by three robot drones he names Huey, Dewey, and Louie. He must then escape discovery and survive a collision with Saturn's rings.

A well-known favourite of The BBC film critic Mark Kermode, who thinks it's a better movie than 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Not to be confused with the Mike and the Mechanics song of the same name, nor the trope Silent Running Mode.

Silent Troping:

  • Artistic License – Biology: Put simply, humanity cannot survive without the environment. The scenario of the film is blatantly impossible; if we wiped out the entire environment, we'd go with it. On the other hand, some of Lowell's statements do seem to subtly suggest that humanity really is on its way out with the loss of the ecosystem (see the Fridge page).
  • Artistic License – Space: Near Saturn you would only get less than one percent of the sunlight you get on Earth, simply because of how much further away it is. That is not enough to sustain the plant life shown.
  • Asshole Victim: While no less dramatic (and showcasing the point where Freeman starts to lose it), every scene showing the rest of the crew of the Valley Forge up until he murders them showcases said crew as a bunch of industrial-strength Jerkasses who sincerely don't seem to give a crap about the fact that they are blowing up the last vegetable life of Earth, and multiple animals (they even rejoice, because that means that they will finally be leaving their post).
  • Award-Bait Song: "Silent Running" and "Rejoice in the Sun", both performed by Joan Baez.
  • Berserk Button: Never tell Lowell that the natural environment doesn't matter. Or imply that synthetic food is better than the grown kind. Ever.
  • Big Brother Is Employing You: The crew of the Valley Forge all work for a government that orders them to destroy the last preserved ecosystems.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Lowell dies, and the last dome is lost in space. Though the last drone is tending to it, and the forest within is alive.
  • Chromosome Casting: There aren't ANY women in this film.
  • Crapsaccharine World: What little is told of Earth paints it this way: sure, there is no longer such a thing as work shortages, but there is the fact that humanity has killed all of the plant ecology on the planet.
  • Cute Machines: Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Which ironically were played by double amputees.
  • Driven to Suicide: In order to save Earth's last remaining plant samples, Lowell is forced to jettison the one remaining dome and destroy the Valley Forge before the Berkshire arrives, killing himself in the process.
  • "Everybody Dies" Ending: By the end of the film, only Dewey is left "alive" to care for the plants.
  • Explosions in Space: A relatively accurate depiction bar the noise — nuclear explosions in space are just circular flashes that fade away.
  • Future Food Is Artificial: And unfortunately, Lowell seems to be the only one who is being bothered by that (the other members of the crew of the Valley Forge either openly dislike the hand-grown food or just see it as a toy to play with in food fights).
  • Gaia's Lament: All natural life on Earth is dead, save for human beings, who at the beginning of the movie are on ships that are trying to save the last of the trees. Food has been reduced to some sort of artificial goop, and all of the characters except for Lowell find real food disgusting.
  • Green Aesop: Somewhat heavy-handed, but (especially at the time the film was made) very necessary.
  • Idiot Ball: Lowell has been taking care of the plants for years, then near the end of the film when he's on the wrong side of Saturn, comes to suddenly realize the reason they're dying is they need sunlight.
  • Last Fertile Region: All plant life on Earth has been made extinct, and the only plants left are in giant greenhouses attached to space freighters. Then one day orders come through to jettison and destroy the domes so the ships can be returned to commercial service.
  • Latex Space Suit: The spacesuit that Lowell wears while performing extravehicular activity with the drones is one of these. It appears to be equipped with magnetic-soled boots, allowing him to "walk" on the surface of the Valley Forge.
  • Meaningful Name: Freeman Lowell's given name conveys his non-conformist nature.
  • Minimalist Cast: Not counting the drones, there are exactly four on-screen characters in this film: Lowell, Barker, Wolf and Keenan, plus the heard-but-never-seen captain of the Berkshire.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Throughout the film's second half, Lowell is consumed by feelings of regret over his impulsive actions and the killing of his shipmates.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: A rescue mission is launched from Earth, on the grounds that they couldn't leave Lowell stranded out there. Ironically Lowell doesn't want to be rescued.
  • Product Placement: American Airlines will last for centuries apparently.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Why were the forests ordered to be destroyed? The President himself was not given the reason, or so he says on his transmission sending the orders. Most likely, it had simply become too expensive to maintain them any longer.
  • Robot Buddy: Lowell reprograms the drones, whom he names Huey, Dewey, and Louie, to serve this function.
  • Sanity Slippage: The combination of isolation and lingering guilt gradually takes its toll on Lowell's mental well-being.
  • Self-Surgery: When the pain of the leg injury he got during his rebellion gets to the point where he's passing out and is delirious, Freeman reprograms the drones (after Reading The Freaking Manual on how to do so) so they can work on his leg.
  • Space Is Noisy: Another of the small fibs of the "hardness" of the story's science. Still works in the sense that the scene where the domes are detonated one by one and Lowell snaps and decides to save the last one is full of standing-in Dramatic Thunder.
  • Terra Deforming: The government policy that leads to the events of the film.
  • Theme Naming: The freighters are all named after national parks - Valley Forge, Berkshire, and Sequoia.
  • Title Theme Tune: Performed by Joan Baez.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Cute?: The animals we see living in the dome mostly consist of animals that humans find appealing, such as rabbits. There are certainly no animals that would threaten human life, like bears for example.
  • Zeerust: The film features robots that can understand human speech, yet take their programming from non-reprogrammable cartridges, which Lowell, slowly going insane from loneliness, has to write new software for, hand-solder the programmed chips onto the boards, and then insert into top-loading bays that wouldn't hold a NES cartridge steady.