It is always disappointing when a good film receives backlash from people who are upset that it was not exactly what they expected it to be. This has happened countless times with creative figures who are well known for a specific project and attempt to branch out or try something new with their creativity. A prime example of this is the 1972 directorial debut of Douglas Trumbull, Silent Running. You can be forgiven if this title does not ring a bell for you, as it has always occupied an ill-defined place in cinema history. Trumball came to prominence thanks to his special effects work on Stanley Kubrick’s legendary exploration of space and life, 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film means a great deal to more than a few individuals who look for the artistic merit in cinema. The idea that the individual responsible for some of the trippy visuals within 2001 was going to craft a film himself thrilled many fans, as they thought they could expect another ambitious, philosophical narrative. What they got was a straightforward, confined space drama with a message of environmental conservation at its core. It was no 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that should be okay.
Although Silent Running was released nearly fifty years ago, it feels more prescient than ever. Set in a distant future where the plant life on Earth has become all but extinct – which does not really sound that far fetched – the last remaining hope for natural vegetation resides on a fleet of spaceships that hold a series of bio-domes that are dedicated to the preservation of the last remaining samples. The ships are hovering just on the outside of Saturn’s orbit, and those who are truly dedicated to the protection of this plant life are few in numbers. One person who can be counted on to protect what is left of Mother Nature is the quiet botanist and ecologist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), who has dedicated his life to ensuring that his vegetation is cared for to give the planet a hope of reforestation. Lowell mostly keeps to himself as he cultivates the crops and interacts with some of the animal life. The other three crewmen on board (Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin and Jesse Vint) are less invested in this aspect of their mission, and mostly view Freeman as a bit of a nut.
It is safe to say that Freeman loves his plants more than he loves people, which causes problems when an order comes down for the crew to jettison the domes and return the ship to commercial service. When Freeman breaks protocol and goes to extreme measures to protect the domes, he is left alone on his ship with only three service robots, who he names Huey, Dewey and Louie, to keep him company. Much of the charm radiating off the film comes from these cute little robots, acting as early versions of something like R2-D2 that we would get a few years later. This film is not a children’s movie, but it is one that has the narrative ambition that seems suitable for a child. The plot is very insular, and the stakes never seem to be elevated to their full potential. The pacing of the film could be described as lackadaisical with real conflict only coming in fits and spurts. This is not completely a negative, though, as the time spent with Freeman as he forms a kinship with these robots and tries to keep the dome fully operational is quietly transfixing.
While cute robot sidekicks can elevate any science fiction film a few notches, this movie would not work if you did not have an actor such as Bruce Dern anchoring the dramatic tension so effortlessly. Freeman is something of an outcast to his fellow crew members, but if you stop to just take in what he is doing and why, you can sympathize with his plight. Would you want to live in a world where memories of vegetation were long gone? The environmental message is not exactly subtle, but it is one worth exploring. Up until this point, Dern had mostly been painted into villainous roles, but he has an innate sweetness about him here despite the extreme measures he is willing to go to in order to ensure the Earth’s survival. This film was a very low budget endeavor, but with Trumbull behind the camera the film was able to pull off some really neat special effects that might surprise you in the elegance. Silent Running does not have a wildly ambitious narrative, but it is quite captivating in its limited scope. You will not find yourself getting baked and getting lost in the visual spectacle of it all, but the film is worth your time and attention all the same.
Arrow Films presents Silent Running with a stunning 2160p transfer in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio sourced from a 4K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative and graded in 4K HDR/Dolby Vision. When we reviewed the previous Arrow Video Blu-Ray a couple of years ago, the upgrade from the previous problematic Universal Blu-Ray was immense. With such a great Blu-Ray preceding this most recent release, the upgrade is not quite as intense, but what improvements we notice are greatly welcome.
On the most fundamental level, this transfer does not register anything in the way of print damage. This new release is respectful to the original look of the film with the added resolution making elements such as the special effects seem more natural. When it comes to the encoding, there are no jarring digital anomalies such as compression artifacts, banding or any other such nuisances. The level of detail and clarity is stunning with the perfect amount of natural film grain intact. The grain resolves incredibly well with no fluctuations detected at any point. Any minor moments that may have gotten a bit loose on the Blu-Ray have been eradicated here. The texture on display in the costumes, the production design and within the setting are a revelation.
A standout aspect of the disc is the application of Dolby Vision for increased color output that deserves high praise for its immense beauty. The new restoration features some colors in the uniforms and vegetation that really make an impression. The color palette is not as expansive as some films, but the nuance that is achieved here makes it look the best it ever has. This disc handles every distinct aesthetic shift with ease. The black levels are outstanding with nothing in the way of crush present, and white levels are solid as a rock with no evidence of blooming. Nearly every single moment offers something to admire. This presentation is a five-star effort from the crew at Arrow Video.
The 4K UHD Blu-Ray uses the same audio track as the previous Blu-Ray release. That assessment is provided below.
This 4K UHD Blu-Ray comes with a DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio mono track that represents the world in a pretty impressive way sonically. The desolate stillness of the ship creeps through to provide some excellent ambient details. All of the various sounds in the mix seem accurately rendered so that nothing ever feels off. The dialogue itself comes through crystal clear without being crushed by the sound effects or score. The memorable, gentle score from Peter Schikele brings a hopeful mood to the proceedings that is represented well in the mix. The tracks contributed by Joan Baez are presented with excellent fidelity within the mix. There are not many huge set pieces to contend with, but everything presented here sounds quite pleasing.
- Audio Commentary #1: Authors Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw discuss the film in depth including the use of science fiction as eco-awareness, how this film fit in during the period between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, how the film was marketed, the science in the film, the evolution of Bruce Dern and more. These two have a great rapport that is nice to sink into for an hour-and-a-half.
- Audio Commentary #2: Director Douglas Trumbull and actor Bruce Dern provide a commentary track recorded in 2000 which goes into a lot of the technical aspects of the film, provide anecdotes from the production, relay their experiences working with Universal, discuss the enduring legacy of the film and more. These two provide some invaluable insights into the film that are worth seeking out for fans.
- Isolated Music and Effects Track: The option to watch the film with only music and effects in LPCM 2.0.
- No Turning Back: A new 14-minute interview with film music historian Jeff Bond, who discusses the unique score from Peter Schickele (aka PDQ Bach) and how Joan Baez factored into the film. You really get a sense of how instrumental this music was to supporting the emotions of the film.
- First Run: A new 14-minute visual essay by writer and filmmaker Jon Spira, who explores the evolution of the screenplay and how the early drafts were more dark and violent. It is fascinating to get a glimpse of what this story could have looked like under different circumstances.
- Archival Special Features
- The Making of Silent Running: An extensive 49-minute making-of documentary that explores the production of the film. This one is a bit different than many I have seen, including a very atmospheric opening and philosophical narration. The behind-the-scenes footage that you get to see here is truly invaluable.
- Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull: A 30-minute featurette in which Trumbull reflects on the film from the initial idea, the mood he was trying to establish, the effects work in the film, working with the Navy and more.
- Douglas Trumbull – Then and Now: A five-minute piece in which Trumbull discusses his career from early work and beyond. Some of the contributions he made to cinema even outside of feature films are fascinating to explore.
- A Conversation with Bruce Dern: An eleven-minute conversation with Dern in which he discusses his career prior to Silent Running, the great experiences he had on set, working with the actors in the robots, his admiration for Trumbull, the themes of the film and more fun insights which are a delight to listen to.
- Trailer: A three-minute trailer that gives you a thorough overview of the story. Honestly, it gives way too much away.
- Behind the Scenes Gallery: A truly mind-boggling amount of still from the production of the film are included here (over 600!).
Silent Running was the victim of unrealistic expectations for Trumbull after his highly lauded work on 2001: A Space Odyssey. His directorial debut was never going to be able to live up to a legend like Kubrick, but that does not mean what he delivered is not worth appreciating. This tale on environmentalism is quite engrossing thanks to a strong turn from Bruce Dern and a trio of lovable robots. Arrow Video has delivered a fantastic new 4K UHD Blu-Ray with an 5-star A/V presentation and a treasure trove of special features. If you enjoy a good self-contained science fiction tale, this one should do quite nicely. Highly Recommended
Silent Running is currently available to purchase on 4K UHD Blu-Ray and Blu-Ray.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the 4K UHD Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Arrow Video has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.