Friday, July 17, 2009

Silent Running (1972)

I saw this movie last week called Moon which I thought was pretty interesting. Somehow, it managed to be compelling even though there was primarily one actor in the thing and also Kevin Spacey as a not HAL-like computer. It was a quiet little movie about a guy finishing up his three year shift of tightening screws and wiping down some mining equipment on the moon. If it sounds mind blowingly exciting, that's because it was. For some reason I forgot to write about it. So, to make up for that, I decided to seek out other space type movies that might feature one character in similar harrowing situations. I had already seen that picture called 2001 which was pretty good if I recall. Had something to do with a giant space rectangle I think. Turns out the supervisor of effects for that thing made a movie a few years later about a space gardener called Silent Running. I could barely contain my excitement.

Turns out I actually managed to enjoy this one, even if it is no Moon or 2001. Sometime in the distant future, or maybe not so distant, all vegetation on earth dies out. The reasons are unexplained. Nuclear winter, an overabundance of mini-malls, whatever. Doesn't really matter I suppose. So, the U.S. governement, along with American Airlines as a sponsor, create these giant spaceships with these giant bio-domes (Pauly Shore not included) to try and preserve some trees, fruits, vegetables, bunny rabbits, etc. The space project is manned by three men and Bruce Dern. Also, three drone robots that would later be stolen and dismantled for parts by some Jawas. Dern plays a guy named Freeman Lowell. He's the space gardener, loves his plants, doesn't eat that processed shit the others do, and frequently chastises them for driving their go-carts on his lawn. The others are sick of the job, have been there for years (I'm assuming) and just want to go back to the desolate wasteland they left behind, known as Earth, and their mutant families. So, when word comes from Earth that they are to destroy the domes and return home, they're not too broken up about it. Freeman, though, well, he goes a little crazy.

Here's a little free advice to all you future filmmakers. If you're going to set a film in the future it's a pretty good idea not to use contemporary music. It's even more important not to use contemporary music if you are making your picture during the later 1960s - early 1970s. I love Joan Baez and all, but c'mon. We don't need a scene where Freeman wanders through his forest as she sings some folksy hippie bullshit and birds land on his shoulders, etc. The movie is almost instantly dated and almost ruined. There are two such scenes where I'd suggest the mute button and also try to look away just before the bird lands on his shoulder. We get it. Hippies, even hippies in the future, love their plants and animals. We hate them. Serious sci-fi is usually better off not being disney-fied.

Anyway, Freeman kills the crew as they begin to plant the nukes in his dome. Mission control wants to know what the problem is. Freeman makes some shit up, something about a malfunction, and heads for Saturn's rings where he can fake the destruction of his ship, hence the title, Silent Running I guess (It's a submarine thing). So, the picture has an eco-message, namely it's alright to kill a few men to stave off the extinction of vegetables and, to be honest, I gotta kinda agree with that. I mean, I wouldn't suggest killing someone that drove through your garden but if it was the last garden on earth I suppose you could be justified. The movie also deals with the issue of what would it be like to be all alone, drifting through space, for an indeterminate time? Kinda lonely I guess is the answer to that question.

So, to cure his loneliness Freeman reprograms the three drones to do things like perform surgery, water plants, and play poker (the poker game is the comedic high point of the picture). They become his three buddies and he even gives them names; Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Unfortunately, Louie had to be named posthumously as he was blown off the ship while making repairs to the outer hull. At first I thought the droids were a bit too cutesy, kinda like R2-D2, but like R2 they grow on you. There are a couple of scenes where they seem to be communicating with each other and you begin to wonder if they're plotting against Freeman. Also, it's pretty strange how they walk. I assumed they hired some little people actors and then I learned that they actually used amputees which, visually, makes more sense. They kinda looked like a couple of guys walking on their hands.

Bruce Dern is very good as Freeman. He's got a pretty nifty character arc. Starts out as a loner, just likes to tend to his space forests since that's all he knows (turns out he's got no family on Earth to go back to either). Then, he becomes a bit of a murderer, although a fairly good intentioned one. Later, he misses the companionship of his victims and comes to the realization that while they weren't his friends he actually "liked them". He even programs the droids to give one of the guys a proper burial in his forest.

So, this sounds like a pretty exciting picture, huh? You got a guy drifting alone through space with his trees and a couple droids. White knuckle type stuff occurs when the trees start dying and he has to figure out why. Holy fucking shit.

I actually like this kind of film. They don't all have to be Star Wars or Transmorphers 2 or whatever. Here we got a simple picture, with some solid model type special effects, a couple of amputees walking around on their hands in droid outfits, and some trees. Fuck it, you could make a movie about a guy clipping his toe nails or painting his bedroom and if you set the thing in space, I'd probably watch it. Ultimately, it's up to you if you want to watch or not. We got no aliens, no space battles (couple explosions though), no killer robots, not even a single scene set in an airlock. It doesn't matter. You probably couldn't see that shit through the trees anyway.


elmo said...

Hooo- I saw this one on Paul C's recommendation. The music did indeed prevent me taking it seriously. Admittedly, I am a bit more attentive movie-watcher now though.

Still have to watch Frankenhooker. In this heat, my computer is barely able to play dvds without skipping.

brian said...

Take your time with Frankenhooker. I just lent out 'The Sinful Dwarf'. You can borrow that one when I get it back if you're not too afraid.

Next up for me is 'Creature'. Yet another 'Alien' knock off. This one stars Klaus Kinski.

elmo said...

Wow- Frankenhooker looked quite a bit like Kate Bush. The perfectly timed facial ticks were a highlight for me. Also:
"Ma, I'm spiralling down into the abyss here."
"Do ya want a sandwich?"
The only other place I've seen the mother is in Happiness.