Why Did I Watch It? Cult favourite that had been on my watch list for ages.
In the near distant future, the Earth’s natural environment has been decimated. Our rulers have an idea to preserve our ecology; collect specimens of plants and animals and send them into space, Noah’s Ark style, in domes aboard giant spaceships. When the Earth has been cleaned up, these will return, to repopulate the planet.
But, in a development that felt very contemporary, the cost of the enviro cleanup turns out to be very high, no one wants to pay, and the program is abandoned. As long as everyone has a job, one character reasons, they can probably do without trees (it is easy to imagine Trump saying this, in campaign 2020). The astronauts charged with looking after our natural heritage are now ordered to blow it up. They are fine with this, they barely even realise there is a moral question associated, with one exception; Freeman, a rebel committed to the natural world, who kills his crewmates and goes on the run. He will save the environment, or die trying.
1972 was a tough time for America. The 60s were over, Richard Nixon had just been re-elected in a landslide, the forces of blind capitalism and arch conservatism were on the march. Reflecting on that year’s election, Hunter S. Thompson write that it was time that the US faced up to who they were: a nation of used car salesmen, motivated only by self interest. The films of the era reflect this uncertainty; often dark, cynical, and focussed on the worst aspects of human nature.
‘Silent Running’ has these elements, and also carries an echo of the idealism of the previous decade. Our environmentally minded hero, played with bug eyed sincerity by Bruce Dern, would not look out of place in a hippie commune. He is eager to shed his spacesuit and don a Christ-like robe, and is more comfortable in the artificial forest he tends, than he is with his fellow humans. But beneath his beatific facade, he is a coiled spring. And when the order is given to destroy what he has dedicated himself to, he snaps. His subsequent actions reflect the frustrations that progressives felt then, and now.
While Freeman initially seems to succeed, things do not go as he expects. He had imagined a life revolving around plants and animals, communing with nature, as a harmonious paradise; in fact, he is soon bored, reduced to teaching his robot companions to play poker to pass the time. Worse: a mystery ailment assails his biosphere, and the plants start dying off. It’s that scene in ‘Easy Rider’ again, where Billy and Captain America spend a few days on a commune, and the wide eyed kids living there are trying to grow crops in the desert. The sixties were full of well meaning dropouts, trying earnestly to change things, who didn’t know what they were doing. Meaningful change is difficult.
Director Douglas Trumbull was a special effect pioneer – most famed for ‘2001’ – who only got to direct a couple of features. He has a more limited budget here than many projects he did FX on, but still manages to create some stylish visuals. The robots are especially effective; charming, anthropomorphic cubes with a lot of personality. In real life: practical effects, piloted by multiple amputee actors. The opening credits shot, a slow motion drive through the futuristic domes, is also an eye catcher.
The best cult movies run on their ideas, and so transcend any limitations imposed on them by a lack of resources. The themes investigated here resonate clearly to this day; reconciling idealism with action is still something that we are working out, and our environment is more imperilled than ever. This is a goofy, often camp movie, with a serious core; an engaging way to present very serious topics. The creators of ‘WALL-E’ must have all seen this, at some formative moment.