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Douglas Trumbull
Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint
Steven Bochco, Michael Cimino

Amazing companions on an incredible adventure... that journeys beyond imagination!
Rated G.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Digital Mono
French Digital Mono
Spanish Digital Mono

Runtime: 90 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 5/21/2002

• Audio Commentary With Director Douglas Trumbull and Actor Bruce Dern
• “The Making of Silent Running
• “Douglas Trumbull: Then and Now”
• “A Conversation With Bruce Dern”
• “Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull”
• Trailer
• Cast and Filmmakers
• Production Notes


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Silent Running (1971)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

On this DVD release of 1971’s Silent Running, we find an audio commentary from director Douglas Trumbull and actor Bruce Dern. At times during this piece, they state that they feel the movie hasn’t aged much over the prior 30 years. I couldn’t help but wonder if they watched the same movie I did. To be sure, the flick’s ecological theme remains vital, as it may be even more relevant today than in the early Seventies. However, the manner in which Trumbull and company executed that material seems excruciatingly dated, and that factor makes Running a tough watch much of the time.

Set in the future, Earth can no longer sustain plant life. Because of this, the powers-that-be created a flotilla of humungous space greenhouses. They maintain vegetation and animal life until they can return to Earth for replanting.

On one of these stations, we meet a crew of four. Three of the men - John Keenan (Cliff Potts), Marty Barker (Ron Rifkin) and Andy Wolf (Jesse Vint) - reside on the craft due simply to orders. They feel little to no attachment to the mission and just want to go home after a long period aboard the ship. On the other hand, the fourth crewmember - Lowell Freeman (Dern) - takes an almost obsessive interest in the plants and animals and becomes extremely attached to his work. This earns him the derision of at least two of his three cohorts, while the third remains uncomprehending, but at least he seems sympathetic.

Early on, Lowell gets some extremely bad news. The chiefs of the program decide to abandon it, and the various crews must blow up all of the greenhouses. To say the least, he takes this information poorly; he can’t believe that the authorities will be so careless and cavalier. Lowell decides to take matters into his own hands. When his cohorts prep the area for destruction, he kills all of them and tries to strike out on his own. He tells his bosses that the other crew died in an accident and that he has no control over the craft, whereas he actually wants to take it into deep space where he can allow the plants and animals to flourish forever.

Much of the film follows his solo journey. Without any human companionship, he adopts three robotic “drones”, which he names Huey, Dewey and Louie. He tries to cope with solitude and also accomplish his self-chosen mission, but the strains of isolation start to get to him. This leads to a bittersweet conclusion.

What does it say about Running when I note that the three drones offered easily the most delightful and engaging characters in the film? The robots provided one of the flick’s many influences on later efforts; it seems patently obvious that George Lucas “borrowed” the look and personality of the drones for R2-D2. (In addition, Trumbull plagiarized himself when he did the effects for another 1977 movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind; both it and Running offer nearly-identical end-credit sequences.)

In addition to their obvious influence on Artoo, the drones gave the film some much-needed charm. To call Dern’s take on Lowell strident and unlikable would be an understatement. I can empathize with his passion and mission to help restore the Earth’s natural splendor, but the character comes across as terribly bitter and shrill. Admittedly, I can understand his attitude; the despoliation of the Earth merits harsh attitudes. Nonetheless, this doesn’t make him a good candidate for a leading man, as it means we actively dislike Lowell much of the time. He warms slightly as the movie progresses, and I could feel for him toward the end, but for too much of the movie, Lowell actively keeps me from becoming involved in the story.

What story there is, at least. To put it mildly, Running moves very slowly. Much of the film concentrates on Lowell’s time alone in space. It looks like Trumbull still strongly felt the impact of his prior film, 1968’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. While Kubrick could make that film’s languid pace work for the most part, then-novice director Trumbull lacked the skill to evoke anything compelling in these bits. Granted, that was part of the point; Trumbull wanted to show the character’s isolation. Unfortunately, these elements simply weighted down the film and made it dull and limp.

Dern’s wild-eyed take on Lowell didn’t help, and some of the character’s stupidity really harmed the film. At one point, the plant life falters, and Lowell doesn’t understand why. I won’t reveal the cause, but it’s insanely obvious, and it seems unbelievable that Lowell wouldn’t figure it out more easily.

The very dated nature of the production made it even tougher to take. Much of the film offered a distinctly “Seventies” look, and the inclusion of a few genuinely terrible songs performed by Joan Baez provided some laughably inane moments. The film bought so heavily into the era’s hippie attitudes that it didn’t play well at all 30 years later.

I wanted to like Silent Running, for it really did provide an important message. Unfortunately, it told this tale in a heavy-handed and shrill manner that made its main character unsympathetic and unlikable. With a more balanced approach, the film could have worked well, but as created, Running was dull and off-putting.

The DVD Grades: Picture B / Audio C / Bonus B+

Silent Running appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, the DVD provided a quite positive presentation.

Sharpness seemed adequate to good throughout most of the film. At times, I felt the picture seemed slightly too soft, but those occasions occurred infrequently. For the most part, the movie remained reasonably distinct and well defined. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no concerns, and I also detected no signs of edge enhancement. As for print flaws, I noticed light grain at times and saw a moderate number of speckles. Both issues appeared more frequently during the film’s first half; they seemed somewhat problematic during that part, but the film cleaned up noticeably as it progressed.

Colors looked pretty solid. The movie displayed a warm and fairly natural palette that the DVD replicated reasonably well. At times the image seemed a bit drab, but that mainly resulted from the film stock used; Running looked a lot like many other flicks from the era. In any case, colors usually were nicely vivid and lively. Black levels appeared acceptably deep and rich, while shadow detail was appropriately heavy but not excessively thick. Neither area excelled, but both seemed fine. Ultimately, I found that despite a few problems, Silent Running provided a good image, especially considering its age.

As for the monaural soundtrack of Silent Running, it seemed fairly average for the era. Dialogue appeared somewhat flat, but the lines always remained acceptably distinct, and they lacked any problems related to intelligibility or edginess. Unfortunately, effects didn’t succeed quite as well. Though generally clear, those elements showed some crackling and could sound moderately shrill at times. However, the effects did boast some decent bass response, as explosions and a few other loud noises displayed nice low-end. Music seemed adequate but no better; the score and songs lacked much range, but they appeared clear and listenable. Most of the track was clean, but some hiss crept through at times. In the end, this felt like a very average track for its day.

Though it seems like a fairly obscure flick, Silent Running enjoys a full special edition release on DVD, as this set offers surprising slew of extras. First we find an audio commentary from director Douglas Trumbull and actor Bruce Dern. Both were recorded together for this running, screen-specific piece. Overall, this appeared to be an erratic but generally interesting track. Actually, it was most compelling when the two discussed projects other than Running. For example, Trumbull offered some intriguing notes about Stanley Kubrick, while Dern gave us nice remarks about Alfred Hitchcock. In addition, Trumbull added a compelling discussion of the problems he faced in the industry. The two also provided a reasonable amount of decent material on Running itself, as we heard a mix of production information. However, they frequently spent too much of their time in praise mode, as both participants told us how great each other and everyone else was. As a whole, the commentary remained interesting enough to merit a listen, but it didn’t seem like a great track.

For reasons unknown, it took a while for this commentary to see the light of day. At the start, Trumbull notes the recording date: October 16, 2000. It seems odd that it took more than a year and a half after that for the disc to reach the market.

After the commentary, we find a slew of other materials. First we discover The Making of Silent Running, a 49-minute and 15-second documentary that comes from the time period of the film’s creation. In addition to movie snippets and behind the scenes footage, we hear interviews with producer Mike Gruskoff, director Trumbull, actors Bruce Dern and Cheryl Sparks, drone builder Paul Kraus, director of photography Charles Wheeler, assistant director Marty Hornstein, editor Aaron Stell, composer Peter Schickele, and makeup artist Dick Dawson. (I may have missed some others - the program doesn’t identify everyone well.)

The period documentary provides a pretty decent look at the movie. It covers different technical and acting elements while it promotes the film. That means it includes more movie clips than I’d like, but it also features a lot of good material from the set. The behind the scenes material easily seems the most interesting, as those snippets reveal a lot of nice images. We even get to watch Joan Baez record the movie’s miserable songs! This isn’t a great program, but it works pretty well.

Next we locate ”Silent Running” By Douglas Trumbull. This 30-minute and five-second piece provides a new documentary about the movie. It shows movie clips, production art, stills and other materials, and recent interviews with Trumbull. He covers the film from inception through production and offers a lot of information about the shoot and the project. The material seems good, but unfortunately, much of it appears redundant if you’ve listened to the audio commentary. Trumbull manages to provide a reasonable amount of new details, but the many duplications make it less valuable that it otherwise might be.

A Conversation With Bruce Dern lasts 10 minutes and 55 seconds and provides what its title describes: a modern chat with the actor. It shows some period stills and film clips interspersed with the usual “talking head” shots of Dern. He covers his early career and the manner he got involved with Running. He also converses about Trumbull and his experiences on the film. As with the Trumbull piece, “Dern” becomes somewhat redundant for anyone who listened to the audio commentary, and the longer documentary also includes some common components. Still, it’s not a bad featurette for someone who wants a quick overview of the actor’s perspective.

In Douglas Trumbull: Then and Now, we get a four-minute and 50-second update on the force behind Silent Running. It follows his career after Running. Again, much of this appears in the audio commentary and seems redundant here, though Trumbull expands upon the topic to a moderate degree, and I enjoyed his look at the Back to the Future ride on which he worked.

A few text extras round out the DVD. Cast and Filmmakers adds the standard biographies for some principals. We find listings for Trumbull plus actors Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin and Jesse Vint. The discussions amount mostly to annotated filmographies, but they offer decent coverage. In addition, Production Notes provides a quick but useful synopsis of the project.

Admirable in spirit but dull in execution, Silent Running told a cautionary tale that almost totally failed to engage me. The plodding piece possessed some intriguing concepts, but the result seemed lifeless and bland. On the other hand, the DVD offered good picture with sound that appeared acceptable for its era. It also included a wealth of decent extras. While I disliked Silent Running too much to recommend it to neophytes, I can strongly urge established fans to pick up the disc; that audience should be very pleased with it.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.923 Stars Number of Votes: 26
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