In the distant future, the Earth has lost all of its natural plant resources. One man on a distant space station is in control of the last greenhouse in the universe. As this science fiction classic opens, botanist Freeman Lowell has spent eight years aboard the space freighter "Valley Forge," preserving the only botanical specimens left from Earth under huge geodesic domes. When he receives orders to destroy the project and return home, Lowell rebels and hijacks the freighter, killing his fellow crewmen, injuring himself and plunging the craft into the gaseous rings of Saturn.
Directed by: Douglas Trumbull
. Starring: Bruce Dern
, Cliff Potts
, Ron Rifkin
, Jesse Vint
, Mark Persons
, Steven Brown
, Cheryl Sparks
, Larry Whisenhunt
, Joseph Campanella
, Roy Engel
. Music by: Peter Schickele
Let me preface this review by saying that I believe our planet's ecosystems are priceless, and their loss to human activity is a tragedy beyond measure. I appreciate that "Silent Running" attempts to convey that message. But that doesn't change the fact that it is an abysmal film on almost every level, poorly acted, poorly written, and downright insulting to the intelligence of any viewer who finished the second grade and who has even the most basic grasp of human motivation and interaction. The problems begin with the premise- the Earth's natural environment has been degraded to the point that plants can no longer grow, so the last remaining samples of forest have been put under domes for preservation. So far, so good. And then these domes are mounted on several spacecraft, and sent out into orbit of Saturn. WHY? It doesn't take any understanding of science AT ALL to realize that if you can grow trees in a dome in space, you can sure as hell grow them in a dome on Earth, and for a lot less money. And money is what the conflict in the film is supposedly about- the spacecraft are given orders to destroy the domes, after only 8 years, and the ostensible reason is that maintaining them is too expensive, and they need the ships to "return to commercial service." Moreover, they aren't simply ejecting the domes into space, which would have been sufficient to destroy them- they're detonating them with nuclear explosives that were brought along for that exact purpose (we know this since each dome is equipped with a receptacle to hold the explosive charge). We're expected to believe that a government that invested in spacecraft to preserve the last vestiges of forest planned ahead by putting nuclear weapons on the ships, just in case they ever decided to destroy those forests in the most pointlessly wasteful way possible.
Besides the illogical plot, "Silent Running" isn't even particularly entertaining. For most of it's running time, nothing happens- Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), the conservator in charge of the forests aboard the spaceship "Valley Forge", is for the most part, alone. He tends his garden or talks to his robots, or sulks and cries. His performance lacks any subtlety, every emotion and expression is exaggerated into a caricature, making it impossible to empathize with Lowell. He's alternately irritating and morally reprehensible, but never identifiable.
The soundtrack, while mostly unnoticeable, features a couple of original folk songs by Joan Baez that are the most sickly-sweet, stereotypical, tree-hugging hippy claptrap you will ever hear- and this is from someone who LIKES folk music. These songs clash completely with the tone of the film, and yank you right out of the experience.
---PLOT SPOILERS FROM HERE ON---
Back to the plot. Everyone on board the "Valley Forge", with the exception of Lowell thinks that the entire enterprise is a waste of time, and wants nothing better than to ditch the forests and go home. They show the project and Lowell no respect, crushing his vegetable garden under their high speed cargo transport vehicles, which they race around the ship in like go-carts. Lowell himself is clearly unhinged from the beginning, ranting at his crewmates about the beauty of the trees and the flowers, and the apathy and destructiveness of man with a mad look in his eyes. That any supervisor would be stupid enough to put these people together in a confined space, in charge of an important mission, for an extended period of time is absolutely incredible.
When the order to destroy the domes comes in, Lowell's response is predictable- before they can finish, he murders his crewmates, trapping several of them in one of the forest domes and destroying it, going against his motivation. He pretends that the ship has suffered damage and alters it's course, trying to hide from the other ships in the shadow of Saturn. The captain of one of the other ships warns him that the Valley Forge's trajectory will carry it into Saturn's ring, which will probably destroy it, and gives him the time when this will occur. But Lowell doesn't even attempt to change course, risking the safety of the last forest which his ship is carrying. And he neglects to bring the ship's maintenance robots (to whom he is emotionally attached) inside before the ship before it hits the ring, resulting in one of them being destroyed.
Despite being a professional conservator, Lowell fails to realize that plants NEEDS LIGHT TO SURVIVE, and that moving the ship into Saturn's shadow starts to kill the forest. When the plants start dying he examines the leaves under a microscope and exclaims "I just don't understand it. I've looked at everything, and I just don't understand it." When he realizes his error, he just sets up sun lamps to restore the trees to health- which makes his earlier oversight even more glaring, since there were already lights mounted inside the dome, they simply weren't enough without the sun.
Depressed and desperate to prevent the other ships from capturing the last dome, Lowell reprograms one of the robots to maintain the forest, ejects the dome, and then destroys the Valley Forge. But if the forest dome could be maintained indefinitely with a few lights and a robot on board, then there was no reason for humans to be out there in the first place, costing the government money. Even if the humans did a better job, when funding ran out they could have simply left the domes with robot attendants rather than destroying them. The entire plot is pointless. In the end, the last forest is still doomed since no one knows it's there. Eventually the robot will break down, the lights will burn out, the power will fail, or a rock will puncture the dome.
Review by benbolin2 from the Internet Movie Database.