‘Silent Running’ Blu-Ray Review – Bruce Dern Is Quietly Compelling In Contained Sci-Fi Drama

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. 

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Video Quality

Silent Running comes to Blu-Ray from Arrow Video with a stunning 1080p transfer in its original 1.85:1 sourced from a 4K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative. As someone who has suffered through the old Universal Blu-Ray, this new Blu-Ray is a revelation from start to finish. This presentation is a knockout that preserves the filmic look with proper film grain and texture throughout. The level of clarity and detail on this release will make this feel like an entirely new film. The black levels are extremely deep and allow for true detail to come through. Skin tones are natural and lend themselves to showcasing an amazing amount of detail, unlike the inconsistent, damaged previous Blu-Ray. There are very subtle details in the production design that are visible here for the first time from tiny details on the spaceship to subtle makeup effects. Even the dated special effects look a little smoother in this restoration. Colors are nice and vibrant as certain moments really pop off the screen. Arrow Video has done an excellent job of restoring this, as all print damage has been cleaned up without messing with the natural look of the film. Those who have been waiting for this one to be faithfully restored on Blu-Ray should applaud Arrow for this standout disc.

Audio Quality

This 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.

Special Features

The first-pressing of the Arrow Video Blu-Ray of Silent Running includes a booklet featuring the essay “Silent Running: Douglas Trumbull’s Visions of Nature” by author Barry Forshaw. The booklet also includes the essay “Silent Running: Bruce Dern’s Star Turn Among the Stars” by author Peter Tonguette. Both essays offer great insights into the history and legacy of this film and its star. The on-disc special features are as follows:

  • 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!). 
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Final Thoughts

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 stellar new Blu-Ray with an A+ 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. Recommended 

Silent Running is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray. 

Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the 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.

 

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