Arrow Heads #83: SILENT RUNNING

Douglas Trumbull’s ruminative sci-fi gets a remaster from Arrow Video

Arrow Heads — UK-based Arrow Films has quickly become one of the most exciting and dependable names in home video curation and distribution, creating gorgeous Blu-ray releases with high quality artwork and packaging, and bursting with supplemental content, often of their own creation. From cult and genre fare to artful cinema, this column is devoted to their weird and wonderful output.


In 1968, visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull (The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) contributed to the ground-breaking special photographic effects of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Four years later, he stamped his own indelible mark on the science fiction genre with his mesmerizing directorial debut — Silent Running. In the not-so-distant future, Earth is barren of all flora and fauna, with what remains of the planet’s former ecosystems preserved aboard a fleet of greenhouses orbiting in space. When the crews are ordered to destroy the remaining specimens, one botanist, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern, The ‘Burbs), rebels and flees towards Saturn in a desperate bid to preserve his own little piece of Earth that was, accompanied only by the ship’s three service robots.

Science fiction offers an escape to the future, but also a window into an era. Silent Running is a perfect example of this, framed by cultural and social ideas of the time in which it was made. An ecological awakening in the 70s, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, a country reckoning with a exhaustive conflict in Vietnam, and a society starting to grasp its own impact on their habitat. In Silent Running, we find a future where a culture of neglect and ensuing environmental apocalypse has crippled the Earth, the hippies lost. The remnants of our flora, transplanted to arks in space. One is helmed by a botanist named Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), who tends to the plants until one day given an order to jettison them into space, to free up the vessels for more profitable pursuits. Going rogue, he enacts a plan to take the vessel and save the life within.

As it begins, Silent Running leans heavy on its pulpit. Even reinforcing ideas of how destructive mankind is by even having these last chance arks of life rigged with nukes. After showing, and provoking from the viewer, anger and incredulity, the film settles into a less preachy rhythm. Focusing on this man, his intent, and his obsessions, and his sacrifice. His only companionship being the plants and a trio of robots (the delightful Huey, Louie, and Dewey), loneliness creeps in, taking a toll as he reckons with his choices. It all adds to what is already a rather bleak, cautionary tone.

For director Douglas Trumbull it was first first opportunity to move to the director’s chair after his work on deploying the stunning special effects on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey 4K. Silent Running certainly feels like a companion piece, and a contrast to the sci-fi spectacular, kicked off by Star Wars, that changed the direction of the genre, and indeed studios, in the years that followed. The visuals stand out, but also notable is the solemn intimacy of the tale. Pacing and deliberate in construction, the film is given a weight thanks to the memorable efforts of its lead. Dern anchors the film in a raw humanity, championing how the efforts of an individual against the misaligned efforts and intent of a group, or corporate entity, can make a real impact. Sure it’s as subtle as a brick to the face, but when something is this important, you can forgive how hard a point is driven home.

The Package

Arrow deliver a all new 2K restoration of the film, derived from the original camera negative, and approved by director Douglas Trumbull. The result is very impressive, with detail being the standout, color palette being very healthy, with good saturation. With the space setting you’ll be happy to hear blacks are deep, while contrast range also is notable. The grain tilts to the heavier side at times and some of the special effect shots lack the sharpness of other scenes, but this is more likely due to the stock used rather than issues with the restoration. Overall, a very nicely done transfer. The release is stuffed with extra features:

  • Brand new audio commentary by critics Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw: Insightful and informed, the commentary works really well to place Silent Running into the scifi genre, in comparison to its peers, and in regards to its influence
  • Original audio commentary by Douglas Trumbull and actor Bruce Dern: A great commentary that spans the life of Silent Running, from the inspirations for the film, actual production, release, and legacy, all well covered
  • Isolated music and effects track
  • No Turning Back, a new interview with film music historian Jeff Bond on the film’s score: a discussion of the score by Peter Schickele, aka fictional persona PDQ Bach
  • First Run, a new visual essay by writer and filmmaker Jon Spira exploring the evolution of Silent Running’s screenplay:
  • The Making of Silent Running, an archival 1972 on-set documentary: notably some of the special/practical effects
  • Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull and Douglas Trumbull: Then and Now, two archival interviews with the film’s director: Worth a watch if only for the glimpse of the film technology Trumbull has developed
  • A Conversation with Bruce Dern, an archival interview with the film’s lead actor: A nice, intimate conversation about his career in general, notably early work in supporting roles, as well as his specific experiences on Silent Running
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Extensive behind-the-scenes gallery
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Arik Roper
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Barry Forshaw and Peter Tonguette: Contains two essays on the film, stills, cast/crew information, and information on the restoration and release

The Bottom Line

The damage we inflict on our habitat has never been more apparent, the warning signs of hurricanes, ice melts, wild fires, swirling though our news cycles like never before. Silent Running delivered a message that was undoubtedly both prescient and relevant to our current age. It remains one of the defining films of the scifi genre, a showcase for some impressive visuals, and a passionate lead performance from Bruce Dern. Arrow Video’s release celebrates its contributions with aplomb.

Silent Running from Arrow Video is available via MVD Entertainment now

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