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Silent Running (1972) - Tending the Garden

Updated on November 4, 2016

The year is 2001 and all plant life on Earth has been destroyed in the aftermath of a nuclear Holocaust; only vast orbiting spaceships like Valley Forge, with its external hydroponic domes, still contain trees and flowers, the hope being that these may one day be used to re-seed the planet.

But when then their destruction is ordered by the totalitarian Earth government, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) the resident botanist on board the Valley Forge, kills his companions and sets off into deep space. He is accompanied only by three small box-shaped robots, Huey, Dewey and Louie. Thus adrift in space in a literal garden of Eden, Dern with the help of the robots tends the garden and than sends it out into deep space to seed a possible second chance for mankind.

Dern is compelling as the troubled botanist and Douglas Trumbull, who was one of the special-effects supervisors on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), demonstrates considerable ability in his first film as director. Silent Running's scenes of vast spaceships floating through space compare well with those in Stanley Kubrick's space epic.

A tree-hugging ecological parable Silent Running (1972) is very much of its time. It deals with many of the concerns of 1970s SF (impending disaster and the fear that advancing technology will be misused), and although the special effects are wonderfully timeless, much of the film, including the soundtrack, shows its age. Nevertheless, there are complexities underneath the surface of the movie that deserve further consideration.

The overall message of the film remains genuinely ambiguous. On first appearance it is fair to assume that Silent Running carries an anti-nuclear, conservationist message. However, the apparently remorseless murders seem at odds with this analysis. Lowell himself is highly neurotic, if not psychotic, and the murders seem to be an inevitable step forward in his descent into madness.

Silent Running is a touching and poignant movie, the final image of the space bound forest tended with a battered watering can by the only remaining robot, is one of the most memorable and moving images in modern science fiction film.

The critics wrote -

“Silent Running is about a basically uncomplicated man faced with an awesome, but uncomplicated, situation. Given a choice between the lives of his companions and the lives of Earth's last surviving firs and pines, oaks and elms, and creepers and cantaloupes, he decides for the growing things. After all, there are plenty of men. His problem is that, after a while, he begins to miss them.” (Roger Ebert)

“The first hour of the film generates a kind of claustrophobic urgency. Thereafter - and this is unusual in the genre - it seems to run out of plot and develops a vein of whimsical charm.” (Observer)


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    • PaigSr profile image

      PaigSr 2 years ago from State of Confussion

      My youngest and I were just out and he was talking about going to Pluto. One thing he brought up for his space ship was having a garden in it. And this movie is what came to mind. I have not let him see it as of yet but that may be in the works this year.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Thank you Cogerson. Nearly 40 years old, Silent Running is a golden oldie now. I remember when the BBC would show it every year, back in the 80's.

      The BBC would show a season of sci-fi films and I'd be so excited, seeing some of these classics for the first time, and video recording everything. aah memories...

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 6 years ago from Virginia

      Great hub on a great movie......I love Bruce Dern in this movie.....I watched this about a month ago.....skip the DVD commentary.....but the movie is worth watching. Voted up