In the distant future there are no forests left on planet Earth - no plants at all, in fact, just people who populate the planet and eat synthetic food, have zero unemployment and think they've achieved a perfect world. The last plants are all kept in vast domes in space, tended to by a handful of men, most of whom cannot wait to get back home. But one of those men is botanist Lowell (Bruce Dern), who is dedicated to the preservation of the gardens, at odds with his crewmates, so is horrified when the order comes to destroy the domes and return to Earth... so he decides to take drastic action to save his favourite woodland.
If Star Wars hadn't come along in 1977, maybe more Hollywood science fiction would have been made along the lines of this earnest, emotional message movie. It was the first directorial effort of the special effects expert Douglas Trumbull who had worked such wonders on Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and was written by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino (a future director himself) and Steve Bochco (who would be very successful in television). It was loosely based on Rolf Frosberg's doomsaying short Ark, which also featured a loner in a polluted wasteland in that case, building a greenhouse of preserved plants and animals, a work that made this look like an episode of Sesame Street so downbeat was it terrible warnings about the environment.
Of course, if there were no plants left, then there would be no oxygen to breathe on Earth, the whole ecosystem would collapse and nothing would survive, so the science in this science fiction doesn't really stand up to close scrutiny. Perhaps it's better to approach it as a fable, with its own tree-hugging moral sensitively portrayed throughout the story, coming about at the beginning of the spate of nineteen-seventies pleas for the environment that would affect pop culture in a number of interesting ways, ranging from scaremongering horror movies to special public broadcasts practically ordering the viewers to take care of the world around them - oh, and TV ads for such products as muesli, part of a health kick tied in with the movement.
What really holds the film together is the wonderful performance by Dern. Here he's playing his typical obsessive, but even though he murders his fellow crewmembers to preserve his beloved greenery he is completely sympathetic as he shows the love and commitment he has for nature - a noble cause, it must be said. While the other astronauts eat processed food, he opts for fruit and veg he has grown himself: he's more of an organic muesli chap those ads were aimed at rather than a Big Mac and fries man. However, don't go thinking his crimes of murder are excused, as Lowell suffers terrible guilt and loneliness, and indeed the manner the plot resolves itself makes it clear he could not get away with his actions, no matter how well-meant they were.
The production design was excellent through and through, with the studio actually an aircraft carrier set for scrap once the shoot was over, perfect for those buggies the astronauts zoom around in, but the best aspect were the reprogrammed drones - three endearing little robots that take care of maintenance and become Lowell's only friends once he reprograms them - they were played by double amputees and have a remarkable personality to them, obviously an influence on R2-D2. The special effects, while not up to the standard of Trumbull's work on 2001, are perfectly acceptable; the Valley Forge spaceship itself is meticulously designed and a turbulent journey through Saturn's rings, which Lowell stages to make it look as if the ship has been destroyed, provides a lightshow.
There may be some padding around the middle where Lowell wanders around reflectively and teaches the drones to play cards, but on the whole Silent Running is a touching and inventive tale which not only could be saying "look after the planet" but also "no good deed goes unpunished". Yet don't go believing the film was anti-technology, far from it as you might expect from a director like Trumbull who relied on it so heavily to craft his production - no potential for accusations of Koyaanisqatsi hypocrisy here - so there was more a theme that mankind's advances should work in tandem with the precious environment to ensure it did not fall away to ruin. Lowell's drones were the proof of that, especially apparent once the film reaches its poignant conclusion of hope at quite some cost. If it doesn't leave you with a lump in your throat, you have a heart of stone. I don't even mind Joan Baez singing songs on the soundtrack... well, OK, maybe not the "flowers in your hair" one. Peter Schickele was responsible for the music.