Howdy all you Supercultists out there on the interwebz! I’m Bad Movie Professor Cameron Coker (BS in “Space Hippies” with a minor in “Geodesic Domes”) and I’ll be posting my hype-tacular speeches every week along with some long lost speeches from past Supercult Shows!
This week Supercult tries convince his girlfriend that he’s environmentally conscious by watching Silent Running!
In the not too distant future all plant life on Earth has become extinct, and the last few specimens have been preserved in enormous greenhouse-like geodesic domes attached to a fleet of space freighters. Biologist Freeman Lowell, tends to this space-faring Garden of Eden, but when orders from Earth tell his crewmates to jettison and destroy the domes and their precious cargo, Lowell and his robotic friends rebel! When the last flower on Earth died, this amazing journey began! This is Silent Running!
After the success of Easy Rider (1969), directed by Dennis Hopper, Universal Studios hit upon the idea to let young filmmakers make “semi-independent” films for low budgets in hopes of generating similar profits. The idea was to make five of these movies each for $1 million dollars or less, not interfere in the filmmaking process, and give the directors final cut, a level of control seldom allotted to even the most successful directors. The movies produced were The Hired Hand (1971) directed by Peter Fonda, The Last Movie (1971) by Dennis Hopper, Taking Off (1971) by Milos Forman, American Graffiti (1973) by a young and impressionable George Lucas, and lastly Silent Running. Released in 1972 (5 years prior to the release of the first Star Wars film), Silent Running is an environmentally themed American sci-fi film written, produced, and directed by the legendary filmmaker and visual effects pioneer, Douglas Trumbull.
Silent Running was Trumbull’s directorial debut at age 31 (Trumbull says that he learned how to be a director while working on the film, as he had no training or experience for the job), but he made his first splash working on the effects for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey four years prior, and after Silent Running he would go on to work on classic sci-fi films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, and even The Tree of Life. With that sort of hit/miss ratio it’s a wonder that more studios don’t bet on new talent more often.
Aside from being third on the list of all-time most thrilling movies about botany (right behind “Little Shop of Horrors” and Day of the Triffids”), Silent Running is a historical nexus of talent and special effects awesomeness. To keep costs down Trumbull hired college students for model making and other tasks. One of them, John Dystra, went on to work on and design special effects for such movies as Star Wars: A New Hope, Caddyshack, Batman & Robin, Spider-Man 1 and 2, and X-Men: First Class. The haunting music for the film was written by bassoonist Peter Schickele, who is known primarily for his classical music parodies under the name of P.D.Q. Back. The Soundtrack contains two songs – “Silent Running” and “Rejoice in the Sun” – that were performed by popular folk singer-songwriter Joan Baez. Several shots of the Valley Forge and its sister ships from the film were later re-used in the TV series “Battlestar Galactica” as agricultural ships in the refugee fleet and Joel Hodgson, the creator of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, credits Silent Running as a major inspiration for the show. When Trumbull was working on the effects for 2001: A Apace Odyssey, Director Stanley Kubrick wanted the stargate sequence to be centered around Saturn, but there were technical difficulties in getting the effects finished in time so Saturn was scrapped and Jupiter was used instead. Afterwards Trumbull developed the sequence and recreated it for the Saturn scenes in Silent Running.
With the restrictive budget, Trumbull had to cut a lot of corners when making the film. In one skinny-dipping scene the water Bruce Dern is swimming in is actually ice cold since the production saved money by not providing a water heater. There are several real corporate logos visible throughout the movie including, but not limited to, Dow Chemical, AMF, American Airlines, Rockwell International, Ditch Witch, and Coca-Cola, while the “Odyssey” carts that the crewmembers drive in the film were custom built on a chassis designed by Trumbull’s father.
Filmed on a 32-day schedule, Silent Running has a total cast of 8 people including the star, Bruce Dern, and the four actors who operated the three drone robots Huey, Dewey, and Louie (named after Donald Duck’s nephews). All four of the drone operators were multiple-amputees walking on their hands, an idea inspired by Johnny Eck, a sideshow performer of the early 20th century who had been born without lower limbs. Each of the 20-pound drone suits were custom-tailored for the different actors and the costumes are now in the personal collection of the director.
The interior scenes were filmed aboard the decommissioned Korean War aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge that was docked in Long Beach, California and scrapped shortly after filming completed. The forest environments aboard the Valley Forge spaceship were originally intended to be filmed in the Mitchell Park Domes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but the production budget forced the sequences to be shot in a newly completed aircraft hangar. Trumbull later stated in the commentary for the Silent Running DVD that the domes were based on the Missouri Botanical Garden Climatron dome. And, lest you think that the spaceship was named after the aircraft carrier filming location, the freighters shown and talked about in the film, The Valley Forge, Berkshire, Sequoia, Acadia, Blue Ridge, Glacier, Mojave, and Yellowstone, are all named after US National Parks.
The model of the Valley Forge was 26 feet (8 m) long, and took six months to build from a combination of custom castings and the contents of approximately 800 prefabricated model aircraft or tank kits. After filming was completed, American Airlines expressed an interest in sending the model on the tour circuit, but this was not feasible due to the fragile nature of the model (in fact, even during filming pieces of the model kept falling off). The ship was subsequently disassembled after several years sitting in Douglas Trumbull’s personal storage facility. Several pieces, including the domes, wound up in the hands of collectors. Several domes survive, including one that now rests in the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, Washington after being bought on an Internet auction site for $11,000 in 2003.
Trivia, history, and general nerding-out aside, Silent Running is a thrilling story about horticulture, slow moving spaceships, robots that don’t talk, and three assholes and a hippie. The movie isn’t so much science fiction as it is a long-winded message from your local agriculture department. Ponderous and somehow melodramatic at the same time, Silent Running’s tagline should’ve been “In Space, No One Can Hear you Grow Vegetables.”
With a 6.8 on IMDB and a 67% on Rotten Tomatoes, Silent Running seems like nothing more than an above average sci-fi film by Supercult standards. Praise for the film is mainly focused on the special effects and Bruce Dern’s terrific (and nearly solo) performance, while criticisms are aimed at the weak script and storyline. We know better though. Silent Running has influenced everything from WALL-E and the indie film Moon to the long-running British sci-fi comedy, Red Dwarf. When 20th Century Fox tried to sue Universal Pictures by claiming that Universal’s Battlestar Galactica had plagiarized Star Wars, Universal Pictures counter-sued, asserting that Fox’s Star Wars copied Silent Running! Silent Running is goofy, charming, and maybe a bit preachy, but it’s also a big part of sci-fi, and now Supercult, history.
Snuggle up with your favorite robotic companion, and don’t forget to recycle all those ‘scream’ bottles!
The Supercult Show is proud to present, Silent Running!