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Remake This: Silent Running
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Remake This: Silent Running

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Hollywood is remake crazy right now and has been for what seems like years. What used to be a curious once in a while thing has turned into a full on money making machine. There is nothing we can do about it. All the gnashing of teeth and talk of cinematic memories being stolen or destroyed by the money machine. Well, they are just not going to matter much in the end. So I figure, why not help ’em out and offer some suggestions since they are looking backwards to find new treasures? There are plenty of films that are good, but not great. Some titles are not hallowed ground as it were for films. Maybe some are films that most people never think about or have watched much in the last 25 years. And just maybe it will delay Hollywood from remaking some of the ones that should never be touched. Sometimes with remakes they strike gold, and you get something new and interesting from it. Just look at John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Both were unique and new twists on old stories. I watch those versions more than the original films they are based on. Granted it is rare you find such masterpiece’s in the remakes, far too often you are left with bland, boring , unimaginative (to put it nicely) re-do’s like Godzilla ’97, Rollerball, Psycho or The Fog. In those cases, I’d much rather see the original films they are based on instead.

The movie discussed below is not what I would consider to be perfect. It has a lot of flaws that would be nice to see improved. But it is all ripe for remaking as the story is laid out and everything is right there waiting for some modernization. From some script changes, updated effects, music, and perhaps maybe some different casting choices, it could herald in a new B movie (or better) classic. Most of these honestly, are B-movies at best, but still they are really good and a lot of fun as they are.

For today we have…

 

Silent Running – 1972 dir. Douglas Trumbull

Warning: spoilers below for a 40 year old movie

We live in the age of the eco-boogeymen of global warming, where we have become so conscious of the environment we use recycled papers, bags, carbon credits to offset vehicle emissions, and fluorescent bulbs to cut down on energy use. We have been hit over the head with the left wing message from Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and it’s sister film the 13th Hour. Hitting just as hard of of course are the messages and movies coming from the anti-global warming and right wing media brigade as well. So much information has been politicized and polarized that sometimes as a layman, it really is hard to get to the truth. What is really happening? What can be done as a collective? What can you do as one person? Is it even enough to help?

Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 opus, Silent Running, takes these questions and offers a glimpse into a possible future we could face in an the event of an environmental disaster. In the future, the world will lose all of it’s trees and forests. Though I do not recall if the film ever explains why specifically the earth has been deforested, I am assuming that it was due to overpopulation and pollution. The last remaining of Earth’s forests are taken out into space for safe keeping on several large spaceships.

 

Three American Airlines (corporate sponsorship, that I doubt would happen today as the company turns out to be the villain in this piece) owned space freighters are carrying the environmental payload and are awaiting a time when they can return to earth in order to do a reforestation of the planet. Each ship has several domes and a specific forest is placed with in each one.

Bruce Dern plays Lowell, the resident caretaker of the forests on his ship, the Valley Forge. Along with him are three other crew members (and three robots) who just see this as a job. Lowell on the other hand has become emotionally involved with his cargo. Early on in the film we can see how Lowell is separated from his co-workers; He spends much time tending to his garden and trying to get them to respect the forests they are in charge of. He would rather eat the fresh fruit and vegetables he grows in the garden then the processed food the ship provides. He even gets chastised by the other crew members for preferring fresh food. If he lived on Earth now he would be working at Whole Foods probably.

When the ships are ordered to cancel the mission to blow up the domes and return to base, all due to cutting costs, Lowell takes it upon himself to try to save the doomed trees. At first he tries to reason with the men then he has to resort to violence and ends up killing one with his hands and the other two are blown up along with one of the forest domes. Lowell becomes sort of like a modern eco-terrorist and spends the rest of the time on the ship trying to avoid capture by heading towards Saturn and delaying as long as possible the command to destroy the last dome.

Silent4

 

One of the three robot companions (Huey, Duey and Louie)  is destroyed while heading through the rings of Saturn. With only two robots and lacking human companionship, Lowell tries to get the droids to learn to be a bit more human. He reprograms them to be able to plant trees, care for the forest, perform minor surgical procedures and to play poker. As he travels further away from the sun the forest he keeps begins to die. He realizes that in his zeal to save the trees he has been the cause of a premature death. When another ship, The Berkshire, signals to him that they found him and thought he was lost, they instruct him to destroy the last dome and they will rescue him. Sensing the end is near, Lowell rigs up a lighting system for the dome and programs the last robot to be the final caretaker for the forest. He then separates the dome from the ship and launches the artificially sunlit forest into deep space.

Silent running poker

 

The first time I saw the film was around 1984 or so and even back then it felt dated. Tho not entirely in a bad way. The effects are quite good for the time and as I have an affinity for the era, I like them quite a bit. Mr. Trumball is an effects man who made his name on films like Andromeda Strain and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddessy (he also went on to work on films like Star Trek, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner, notably). More than likely a remake will involve all CGI effects but I would hope a good director could sneak a physical model or two in there. The film predates the era of Star wars by a few years and tries hard to create a certain kind of magic with the robots that George Lucas had a better luck with.

Bruce Dern does a fine job as Lowell and he plays sympathetic for the most part. Although he becomes a murderer in the name of an idea and that may be one of the points of the film. Does ideology trump humanity? What drives a relatively peaceful man to to kill for a cause? What motivates the company? These are all questions suited to our culture right now. We see these actions int he world around us. The remake of the film could explore these ideas to a finer detail.

Silent running Dern

 

The 60’s counter culture style comes through strong in Dern’s performance as Lowell likes to wear robes reminiscent of a hippie monk or a Christ- like figure. Also credit should be given as Alien is usually noted as the first kind of realistic truckers in space motif but Silent Running really has this down. The crew, the ship and robots all look all have a grit, dirt and real world quality to them. This is a working man’s space ship.

 

One of the movie’s biggest problems for me is the dated music of the film. With the entirely out of place, eye-roll inducing and very grating Joan Baez songs (go on & click to hear one for yourself) on the soundtrack, this film screams for an update. In fact this folk song soundtrack sums up my feelings about using contemporary music in sci-fi settings like this. It immediately ages the film and takes you out of it. Classical soundtrack scores just work better, if you look at Star Wars as a prime example John Williams’ music is timeless. This film has some classical pieces in it, but needed more.

Silent Running was a flop upon it’s initial release but still packs a punch almost 40 years later. It is a good film with many flaws and ultimately it is about something. Too many sci-fi films come and go without really leaving an impression. This is not one of them. I really responded to the ecological message of the film and after seeing it again recently I think this story is ready to be updated for a new time. I am surprised that Hollywood has yet to pick this one off for remake potential given it’s story lends itself to the modern environmental messages.

 


Doug L. Doug is a lifelong film enthusiast and like a lot of others from that generation can trace it back to when he saw Star Wars as a kid in 1977 for the first time. He spent a good part of his formative years working in video stores jockeying VHS tapes across the counter. Doug genuinely enjoy movies in an irony-free way and love all kinds of films from the Arthouse to the Grindhouse. If anyone is going to take movies too seriously around here, it's gonna be him.
  • Daryt Jov Frank

    This was one of my favorite movies growing up. Spent many a free period in High School watching it in the library. Watched it again in the nineties and was somewhat embarrassed at how heavy handed the messages were, it was almost painfully earnest. I’ll have to watch it again, to see if nostalgia has buffed up the sheen, or tarnished it more.
    I disagree with the opinion about the Joan Baez songs. As I recall, they worked fairly well for the most part. I think because they were meant to be an integral part of the film experience, not just a soundtrack that is providing background atmosphere.