It's long been fashionable for film reviewers to slag off films for being sentimental. The problem is not so much the notion of sentimentality in and of itself, as the context and manner in which it is applied. Criticising Steven Spielberg for being sentimental is simultaneously apt and foolish - apt when it meddles with or cheapens a dark subject matter, as with Schindler's List, but foolish when it is complimentary and integral, as with E.T. or Close Encounters.
Silent Running's reputation has suffered from a similar stigma, namely that a grown-up science fiction film with serious thematic intentions cannot bow to something as feeble as human emotion. The clichéd view of 1970s science fiction, created by 2001 and cemented by Solaris, is one of a cold, clinical, existential world where any concession to audience emotion is strictly verboten. But while such an approach worked wonders for Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky, Silent Running is still a damn fine film which proves that substance and sentimentality can go together.
Doug Trumball made Silent Running in direct response to the perceived coldness and clinical precision of 2001. Having created many of the special effects on Kubrick's film, including the iconic star-gate sequence, he sought to make a film about the future of humanity in which computers and apes were not the most human characters. Where Kubrick's films focussed on Mankind, Trumball wishes to look at people as individuals. And where Kubrick balanced Humanity's physical insignificance with its God-like potential, Trumball praises Man's capacity for compassion even in the face of insignificance, disinterest or despair.
If one was feel as cold and calculating as HAL, one could easily dismiss Silent Running as nothing more than 'hippies in space'. Being a product of the early-1970s, when America was experiencing the death throes of hippie culture, such connotations are to some extent inevitable. It is undoubtedly true that Bruce Dern's character conforms to popular, if cynical, stereotypes of hippies, from his loose-fitting clothing and drawling delivery to his obsession with nature which many (the crew included) would consider unhealthy.
One of the problems with Silent Running from this point of view is its questionable attitude towards mankind in the pursuit of pro-nature or 'hippie' ideals. The position towards technology is ambivalent; Dern yearns for a monastic existence where Man eats the fruits of His own labours, but it is ultimately the machines which sustain the forest. More problematic is the implication that preserving nature is more important than human life, to the point where murdering his crewmates appears to be justified. The film could be making the point that one has to go the hard yards in the name of one's principles, but it remains questionable whether in its content or its presentation.
But if we put this immediate concern to the back of our minds, Silent Running's ecological theme emerges as more than a simple choice between Nature and Man, or Man and Machine. It is more prominently a film about harmony, about how the march of progress has made humans overly dependent on technology. Technological progress, including the development of space travel, has increased the standard of living of the astronauts to such an extent that they take their resources for granted.
Dern's colleagues no longer care about the forest or the food they eat because they have been living in a world where their every want is met. They behave almost like spoilt children, spending their time racing around the cargo bay and joking around. Dern's position is similar to that of the 19th-century Arcadians like John Ruskin and Henry David Thoreau, writers who warned against the increasing luxury and apathy brought on by mechanical progress. Dern is the Arcadian among the lackadaisical industrialists, still able to enjoy himself but ever watchful of the consequences of progress, and mindful of the alternative which could soon cease to exist.
When WALL-E was released three years ago, numerous critics compared the opening section to Silent Running. There is an obvious parallel in the role of robots tending to the Earth (or what is left of it), and in the loneliness of this occupation both practically and philosophically. Like WALL-E, Dern and his droids are going against the grain to do what they believe is right, and both have developed eccentricities through isolation which has caused them to deviate from their original 'programming'. With WALL-E, it is his bizarre passion for Hello Dolly!; with Dern, it is his desire to teach droids how to play poker.
Although WALL-E could not have existed without Silent Running, it remains the superior of the two films. Although one of the longer PIXAR efforts, it feels tightly structured and well-paced, while there are long sections of Silent Running which feel superfluous or needlessly slow. This may be down to the involvement of Michael Cimino at a script level; his first writing credit in Hollywood contains the same flaws in pace and emphasis which would scupper him as a director. The poker scene, for instance, feels like it shouldn't be there, or at least like it should be a lot shorter.
Parts of Silent Running have also dated quite badly. Peter Schickele's soundtrack has stood the test of time rather well, but Joan Baez' warblings are a distinctly Marmite experience. Some of the dialogue is preachy, with Dern going over many of the same arguments to the point of exhaustion. But to be fair, it is very difficult to sustain a story with a limited number of locations and characters without the luxury of extended dream sequences (Solaris) or multiple versions of the characters (Moon). Trumball may be no Kubrick, but all in all he has done a reasonable job.
One aspect which hasn't dated, however, is the special effects. When Trumball was interviewed recently for the Blu-Ray release, he commented that organic, miniature or optical effects date better than CG visuals because they are more "photo-realistically impressive", i.e. have weight and tactility. The external shots of the Valley Forge are shot from the correct perspective so that we aren't conscious of them being model shots, and the explosions look and feel both realistic and custom-built.
The most illuminating special effect, however, is the three drones which Dern uses to tend to the forests after commandeering the Valley Forge. The drones, inspired by characters in Tod Browning's Freaks, were created by double amputees walking on their hands. This and the facial structures of the drones create a human-like movement which we can recognise and use as a starting point for empathy.
What makes Silent Running remarkable, and ultimately successful, is the strength of its emotional pull. The tactility of the special effects, the honesty of the script and the tender nature of the final act has the same effect that the ending of E. T. does; you feel as though you have earned the right to blub your eyes out because of how well the characters have been formed and how much you have enjoyed their company. Much like The Man Who Fell To Earth, the emotional weight of the characters allows us to overlook or forgive any narrative shortcomings and enjoy having our hearts broken.
Silent Running remains an underrated and underappreciated science fiction film. It's not without its flaws, whether narrative or otherwise, and it has to take a back seat to 2001 both in ambition and in execution. But what it lacks in awe and spectacle it makes up for in heartache, coupled with a good-natured and welcome intelligence. WALL-E may have since surpassed it, but it remains compelling viewing.