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Douglas Trumbull
Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin
Steven Bochco, Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn

In a future where all flora is extinct on Earth, an astronaut is given orders to destroy the last of Earth's botany that he keeps in a greenhouse aboard a spacecraft but he rebels.
Rated G.

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English DTS-HD MA Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 90 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 11/17/2020

• Audio Commentary With Director Douglas Trumbull and Actor Bruce Dern
• Audio Commentary With Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw
• Isolated Music & Effects Track
• “The Making of Silent Running” Documentary
• “Then and Now” Featurette
• “A Conversation With Bruce Dern” Featurette
• “Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull” Featurette
• “No Turning Back” Featurette
• “First Run” Visual Essay
• Trailer
• Gallery


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Silent Running [Blu-Ray] (1971)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 1, 2020)

On this 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 nearly 30 years between the film’s creation and their chat.

I couldn’t help but wonder if they watched the same movie I saw. To be sure, the flick’s ecological theme remains vital, and it may be even more relevant today than in the early 1970s.

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 humongous 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, so 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 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, Lowell takes this information poorly, as he can’t believe that the authorities will be so careless and cavalier. Lowell decides to take matters into his own hands and save the greenhouses, a choice that leads him down a mix of unexpected consequences.

What does it say about Running when I note that its three robotic drones offer easily the most delightful and engaging characters in the film? The robots provide one of the flick’s many influences on later efforts, as 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. We see similar craft designs, and CE3K and Running offer nearly-identical end-credit sequences.

In addition to their obvious influence on R2, the drones give 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, as 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 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 in space, and 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, as Trumbull wanted to show the character’s isolation. Unfortunately, these elements simply weigh down the film and make it dull and limp.

Dern’s wild-eyed take on Lowell doesn’t help, and some of the character’s stupidity really harms 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 makes it even tougher to take. Much of the film offers a distinctly “Seventies” look, and the inclusion of a few genuinely terrible songs performed by Joan Baez provide some laughably inane moments. The film buys so heavily into the era’s hippie attitudes that it doesn’t play well at all almost 50 years later.

I want to like Silent Running, for it really does provide an important message. Unfortunately, it tells this tale in a heavy-handed and shrill manner that makes its main character unsympathetic and unlikable. With a more balanced approach, the film could work well, but as created, Running feels dull and off-putting.

The Disc Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B-/ Bonus A-

Silent Running appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. The Blu-ray became a highly satisfying presentation.

Sharpness seemed solid most of the time. A handful of soft shots materialized, but those stemmed from the original photography. The majority of the flick appeared well-defined and concise.

Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no concerns, and I also detected no signs of edge enhancement. With a nice layer or grain, I suspected no problematic use of noise reduction, and the movie lacked print flaws.

Colors looked appealing. The movie displayed a warm and fairly natural palette that the disc replicated well.

Black levels appeared deep and rich, while shadow detail was appropriately heavy but not excessively thick. Only minor softness kept the image from “A”-level consideration, as I thought the film largely looked great.

As for the DTS-HD monaural soundtrack of Silent Running, it seemed fairly good for the era. Dialogue appeared somewhat flat, but the lines always remained acceptably distinct, and they lacked any problems related to intelligibility or edginess.

Effects offered clear, accurate reproduction with surprisingly positive bass response at appropriate times. Music appeared reasonably robust as well, and the score felt smooth and bright. This was a perfectly satisfying track for a 50-year-old movie.

How did the 2020 “Collector’s Edition” Blu-ray compare to the DVD from 2002? The BD’s lossless audio offered a nice step up, as this track lost the distortion that marred its 2002 predecessor.

Visuals also worked better, as the BD looked better defined, cleaner and more vibrant. In all ways, the Blu-ray improved upon the DVD.

A bunch of extras appear here, and we find two separate audio commentaries. Recorded in October 2000, the first comes from director Douglas Trumbull and actor Bruce Dern.

Both sat recorded together for this running, screen-specific piece. Overall, this becomes an erratic but generally interesting track.

Actually, the commentary works best when the two discussed projects other than Running. For example, Trumbull offers some intriguing notes about Stanley Kubrick, while Dern gives us nice remarks about Alfred Hitchcock. In addition, Trumbull brings a compelling discussion of the problems he faced in the industry.

The two also provide a reasonable amount of decent material on Running itself, as we hear a mix of production information. However, they frequently spend too much of their time in praise mode, as both participants tell us how great each other and everyone else was. As a whole, the commentary remains interesting enough to merit a listen, but it doesn’t seem like a great track.

For the second commentary, we get a newly-recorded piece from film historians Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw. Both sit together for this running, screen-specific view of cast and crew, genre domains, production elements, and interpretation of the movie.

This doesn’t become much of a standard “film historian” track, as Newman and Forman only occasionally touch on domains connected to the movie’s creation. Still, they offer a nice overview of connected topics and they make the track move at a nice pace. This turns into a pretty solid chat.

A third audio-only piece, the disc allows us to view Running via an Isolated Music and Effects Track. This delivers those elements in an LPCM monaural rendition. For fans who like this option, it seems worthwhile.

Video programs ensue, and The Making of Silent Running offers a 49-minute, 17-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, as 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 awful songs! This isn’t a great program, but it works pretty well.

Next we locate ”Silent Running” By Douglas Trumbull. This 30-minute, nine-second piece provides a circa 2002 documentary about the movie.

It shows movie clips, production art, stills and other materials, and then-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, 57 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. Dern 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, 52-second update on the force behind Silent Running. It follows his career after Running through the early 2000s.

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.

New to this Blu-ray, No Turning Back goes for 13 minutes, 48 seconds and brings comments from film music historian Jeff Bond. He discusses the movie’s score and songs in this fairly informative reel.

Also created in 2020, First Run lasts 14 minutes, three seconds and provides a “visual essay” from writer/filmmaker Jon Spira. He digs into a look at the screenplay’s evolution in this useful program.

In addition to the film’s trailer, we finish with a Behind the Scenes Gallery. It presents 682 (!) stills that represent movie shots and elements from the set.

The “Gallery” really needed to get broken down into smaller domains, as nearly 700 pictures all in one big batch overwhelms. When we see actual behind the scenes images, I like this collection, but far too many of those 682 stills just show Bruce Dern in various stages of grimacing.

Admirable in spirit but dull in execution, Silent Running tells a cautionary tale that almost totally fails to engage. This plodding piece possesses some intriguing concepts, but the result seems lifeless and bland. The Blu-ray offers very good visuals as well as solid audio and a long roster of bonus materials. Though this turns into a fine Blu-ray, the movie itself remains a snoozer.

To rate this film, visit the DVD review of SILENT RUNNING