The movie, Silent Running (1972) has always been a bit of an after-thought for me. Between 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); Logan’s Run (1976); Close Encounter’s of the Third Kind (1977); Star Wars (1977); and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Silent Running was always put on the back burner.
Well, in this pandemic shut-in, I figured it is as good a time as any to watch it and discern a narrative that is applicable to today’s political discussion. Discernment was a little more difficult than usual given, in my opinion, the low production value of the movie. ABC’s Battlestar Galactica (1979) exemplified better production value as a science fiction television show than the Douglas Trumball-directed Silent Running.
All the more reason for viewing a movie twice. The plot line appeared simple enough. It is January 2001 and the crew of the space vessel Valley Forge have been ordered to destroy an important cargo: Earth’s remaining forests. Botanist Freeman Lowell, played by Bruce Dern, has been in space eight years, tending to the forests, nurturing the animals born on the ship, and growing and eating the organic food that he has picked with his own hands. His crew mates, played by Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, and Jesse Vint, do not share Lowell’s enthusiasm for re-forestation of the Earth or for Lowell’s organic food. And when the order comes to destroy the domes carrying Earth’s forests, his crew mates are only too eager to set the nuclear charges that will blow the domes to bits.
If there is a narrative, it goes beyond just saving the forests. While the term “climate change” was not prevalent during this period and not used in the movie, deforestation does play a role in discussions aimed at reversing Earth’s temperatures. Deforestation is second only to the burning of fossil fuels as a driver of climate change. Forests are cleared for a number of reasons which include clearing out more land for agriculture and for the provision of fuel. But these forest clearing actions release gas house emissions into the air and climate change policy proponents will argue that if humans are to make any contribution to the cooling off of the planet, reversing deforestation will have to be one of those policies.
To move past the indifference that was on display in Silent Running and which likely leaks into our current society, proponents for better policies preventing deforestation will have to be more persuasive than Freeman Lowell. I commend Bruce Dern for not piercing the preachy envelope when he tried to persuade his crew mates to ignore the order to destroy the forest domes. At the same time, Douglas Trumball was unable to evoke any sympathy for Lowell’s position or Lowell himself as the character drew closer to his demise. I can’t fault Trumball solely since the script provided to him by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, and Steven Bochco did not provide him with any dialogue between Lowell and his crew mates that would have at least fleshed out arguments for and against destroying the forest thus evoking sympathy for either side at a minimum.
Interestingly enough, almost 50 years later and after much dialogue on climate change, neither Donald Trump or Joe Biden’s campaign platforms address in any explicit way deforestation. And while Mr Biden promises to incorporate the goals of the Green New Deal into future policy, the Green New Deal itself does not provide any policy discussion on deforestation.
At least a fifty year old movie made some half-hearted attempt to do so.