2012 Film Challenge #50 - Silent Running

I'm celebrating having reached the halfway point of my 2012 Film Challenge by watching a film I've wanted to see for some seventeen years now.

Those seventeen years, though, haven't been spent hyping it up. I've not spent the time saying “Silent Running will have all the answers. Silent Running will change my life.”

Rather, I've been saying, again and again, “Oh, I'd quite like to see Silent Running.”

So there was no danger of unfulfilled expectations. But even if there were, this film combines three of my favourite things: Science fiction, folk music and robots. I was always going to approve.

One of the things to which I'm paying most attention in my watching and reading of science fiction these days is the world building. In what ways are the audience or readers made aware of the particulars of these speculative worlds?

I'm not really a fan of being told exactly what's happening; and world's that are ostensibly our own are just lazy. The truly engaging worlds are those into which you're thrown headlong and allowed to explore at your own pace. The perfectly realised speculative fiction is full of shadows.

Silent Running builds its world in quite a subtle way. Gradually we learn that humanity has entered a golden utopian era in which there's hardly any disease and nobody's poor. Everybody has a job.

But at what cost? There world's a barren wasteland at a constant 75 degrees. The only remaining trees are cultivated in geodesic domes tended by astronauts in orbit around Saturn.

The future, it's implied, is bright but bland. Nobody's suffering, but nobody's dreaming. Though humanity's apparently conquered the stars, it seems that it's forgotten much more than it's learned. For instance, the realisation that plants need sunlight to survive ultimately comes as something of a revelation.

Our hero Lowell is therefore represented as the last hope for an atrophied humanity. The fact that everybody has jobs isn't enough for him. He wants life to be interesting again. More to the point, he'd like nothing more than for humanity to be able to lie down in the long grass.

But war has been declared on nature. When instructed to destroy the domes, which truly constitute as the last bit of earthly nature in the universe, he loses it. He kills his crew and fakes his death through piloting a treacherous course through Saturn's rings.

This leaves him drifting alone in space with a forest which slowly begins to die from lack of sunlight. Luckily, though, he has some adorable little robots who he's reprogrammed to be his friends.

I dig the strong environmentalist message, and I'm always happy to watch minds gradually unravel onscreen. If it happens in space with a robot accompaniment, all the better!

And, like I say, the film manages to build a plausible future to which we could indeed be heading. I doubt we'll forget the intricacies of photosynthesis within the space of a hundred years, though. If people are still able to use looms by hand when the process of weaving is automated, then it stands to reason that we'll still be able to care for plants even when our atmosphere no longer supports them.

And the rationale for casting the last surviving specimens of nature millions of miles into space is never touched upon.

Even if the surface temperature of Earth stands at a chronic 75 degrees, those geodesic domes can support plant and animal life within the cold vacuum of space. Surely they'd be even more effective on sun-baked Earth? Not to mention the billions that would be saved on constructing such space vessels to harbour the domes, and paying the vast amounts that would be demanded by those employed to staff them.

They can't really be called plot-holes when no effort's made to explain things. But still, it's a discrepancy which has the potential to be jarring.

Yet that's not the point. To pick apart the film on that level would be to not see the wood for the lack of trees. The thrust of Silent Running is its elegant pace and its strong environmental message, which will, I fear, always be relevant.

And did I mention how obscenely loveable are those robots?

I'm glad I finally saw Silent Running. It was bleak but endearing, with wonderful Joan Baez music lending a necessary earthiness to proceedings.

Hippies in space; or Sci-Fi Folk. Now there's a genre in need of revisiting.

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