Undoubtedly, the 1970s was one of the most important decades for environmental issues. At the start of the decade, the environmentalist movement had become so influential that the United States government felt compelled to amend the Clean Air Act (in 1970) and the Water Pollution Control Act (1972). This action expanded the scope of the law and gave the government greater enforcement capabilities. Not long after, the Environmental Protection Agency was born.
It should come as no surprise, then, that David Trumbull's Silent Running (1972) appeared in this era. Praised for its visual effects, Silent Running tells the story of Lowell, one of four crew members aboard the Valley Forge, a commercial spaceship carrying several massive biodomes which house some of the last remaining natural wildlife known to man. Earth, it turns out, is not so much barren as artificial; its people consume processed cubes of nutrients, and the Earth's surface is devoid of forests or other natural environments. When the crew of the Valley Forge receive orders to detach the domes and destroy them, Lowell, the lone environmental idealist, murders his crewmates and conspires to flee with the remaining dome and a trio of clunky robots.
Silent Running most certainly has a lot to say about environmentalism, but what I found most fascinating about the narrative were its attempts to grapple with the question of Lowell's sanity. From the start of the film, Lowell is portrayed as the outsider -- the one weirdo who eats naturally grown foods, who believes in the forestry project, and who finds life back on Earth utterly horrifying. In one of the most pivotal moments in the film, he rants at his crewmates after they tease him for eating a cantaloupe. In that speech, he reminds us that Earth is polluted and synthetic: its temperatures are controlled all across the globe, its food is drawn from processors, and its new generations are growing up without natural environments to appreciate. This moment strikes at the core of the film. For Lowell, life in the domes, as artificial as they are, represents a life that might be on Earth; he's an idealist of the highest order because he exists in a reality where these domes are, ironically enough, the only natural environments left for humanity.
That Lowell strikes out on his own near the middle of the film is not insignificant. For much of the film, Lowell's outsider status is not just a simple difference of opinion -- an environmentalist versus the contented. His outsider status is a division of humanity. His crewmates are the faces of a "new" humanity who have discarded an evolutionary relationship to the natural world in exchange for an intellectual relationship with product. Lowell is the "old" face, the humanity which appreciates the natural world, not just because of its splendor but because being human means being connected to the natural. When Lowell does kill his crewmates -- one he kills with his bare hands; the other two he kills after detaching a dome with them inside and then destroying it -- it is an act of madness, desperation, and separation. Lowell's sanity should be drawn into question at this point, not just because he commits murder, but because by doing so, he is severing his ties to his own species. But is he actually mad, or is there something else at work here?
As you might have guessed, this doesn't quite work. A search party eventually finds Lowell and the Valley Forge, and Lowell must once more make a decision: allow the dome to be captured and destroyed or do something extreme. His solution: leave one of the robots to tend to the forest, shoot the dome off into deep space, and then use the remaining nukes to destroy himself and the Valley Forge. This scene appears to be foregrounded by the ambiguity I mentioned earlier. Here, there is no ambiguity left: Lowell sacrifices himself to protect the dome. But his sacrifice also means relinquishing to the inner turmoil he has felt since the start of the movie: that he is no longer part of the human race.
Lowell's anti-humanity (or rejection of a new humanity, if you will) is also enhanced by the conclusion's compelling duality:
- The human race as we know it is extinct.
- The salvation of the natural environment must come from the intervention of humanity and its machines.
It's a pretty intense message for a film that in so many ways shouldn't have worked. Yet it remains, for obvious reasons, a classic.
Now it's your turn. What did you think of Silent Running?
Note: Silent Running makes little effort to explain how the biodomes work as self-sustaining entities. They just do.
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