Douglas Trumbull made his directorial debut with a science fiction picture, set in outer space. Which seems like a no-brainer, given that he’d made his name supplying stunning special effects to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Andromeda Strain (1971). But Silent Running (1972) is not your run-of-the-mill genre exercise. It probably remains the only science fiction movie about gardening. (Or does WALL-E  count?) It features songs written and performed especially for the film by Joan Baez. It stars Bruce Dern, who blows a gasket in several scenes, as Bruce Dern is wont to do. He plays Freeman, the ornery hippy gardener on a vast freighter fitted with geodesic domes filled with flora and fauna, miniature Edens kept adrift in space because the Earth is now devoid of plant-life. (Though, somehow or other, humans survive.)
One day Ground Control calls and says to nuke all the gardens and return to Earth so that the ships can be repurposed for commercial usage—the project backer isn’t NASA but American Airlines. (Now that's science fiction.) So Freeman goes rogue, murdering his colleagues, pushing through the rings of Saturn, and setting out alone, or rather, in the company of a trio of wobbly dwarf droids (actually amputees in robot costumes, walking on their hands) whom he teaches to perform surgery, plant trees, and play poker.
Edmonton's Metro Cinema is screening Silent Running next week as part of its Cult series, which, now that I’ve re-watched the film for the first time in many years, seems to be the right category. Like many cult films, its premise is juicier than its execution. There are an awful lot of gear shots, and shots of Dern’s pained visage, which I always find endearing but certainly has its limits. The droid humour quickly grows tiresome, much of the story in inert, and the ecological message is vague as can be—Freeman isn’t concerned about sustainable ecosystems, just “beauty” and “imagination,” which, oddly enough, are two things Silent Running lacks. Trumbull has proven himself some kind of genius—I interviewed him a couple of years back and he was simultaneously busy finishing up effects for The Tree of Life (2011) and coming up with a solution for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But his watchable debut feels like soft-headed ’60s didacticism.