Universal’s brief indie fling produced great, odd results like Silent Running

Universal’s brief indie fling produced great, odd results like Silent Running

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The origins of the Tom Cruise movie Oblivion have us thinking about offbeat ’70s science fiction.  

After Easy Rider’s success, the major movie studios were at a loss. They knew there was a vast audience of young moviegoers, energized by the counterculture and intrigued by the explosion of European film. For this brief, disoriented moment, the studios admitted they had no idea how to reach this new audience, and their best shot was in giving free rein to those who might. Universal tried and failed with Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop—or more precisely, tried and then stopped—but they decided to give the idea another shot, giving five young directors carte blanche, or at least as much freedom as their minuscule budgets could buy.

Only George Lucas’ American Graffiti, the least countercultural of the bunch, was a box-office hit, but years later, every one of the films, including Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, Milos Forman’s Taking Off, and Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, stands out for the undimmed singularity of its vision. That’s especially true of Silent Running, which stars Bruce Dern as a scientist trying to re-grow Earth’s flora aboard a floating spacecraft.

Douglas Trumbull also directed 1983’s Brainstorm, but he’s best remembered for working on the special effects for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Silent Running shares Kubrick’s desire to turn science fiction toward philosophical ends. Trumbull’s themes, however, are more physical than metaphysical. In a future where every corner of the earth is a balmy 75 degrees and food comes in freeze-dried chunks, is there any nature to go back to? Dern’s wild-eyed longhair, seen early on carrying fresh-picked vegetables in the womblike folds of a long white robe, believes it isn’t too late, but his three shipmates (including a young Ron Rifkin), only taunt his devotion, riding their ATVs through his flower patches for sport. 

Dern is operating under the delusion that he’s about to be placed in charge of Earth’s reforestation. Instead, he’s asked to preside over the destruction of everything he’s grown. Rather than follow orders, he strikes out on his own, with only three speechless, clunky-looking robots—which he names Huey, Dewey, and Louie—for company. For a good half of the movie’s 90 minutes, Dern speaks only to them, which is to say, to himself. He’s like a self-marooned Robinson Crusoe, exiled from a species he no longer feels a part of.

With its geodesic greenhouses and utopian undertones, Silent Running is R. Buckminster Fuller by way of the Whole Earth Catalog. Dern’s twitchy performance is an acquired taste, and the movie doesn’t last long enough to let people acquire it. But the film is a fascinating oddity, and the object of a well-deserved cult following.

Availability: A featureless domestic DVD; a gorgeous, lovingly annotated U.K. Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema; digital rental or purchase from the usual suspects; and available for rental from Netflix.