Silent Running…is IMPORTANT! (Part 1)

The Phantom of the Cineplex

For two generations, 1972’s Silent Running was an instantly recognizable science fiction film classic and mainstay of television’s small channel syndication and a regular of major network “movie night” time blocks (usually Sunday nights which, I have long suspected, was to purposely allow for preemption by scheduled sporting events so as to obviate the need to disperse advertisement revenue across more than one license in a week).  However prominently this work once featured in the public imagination, it has slipped into deep obscurity and most casual Sci-Fi consumers of the Millennial Generation have never seen this secretly important film.  Silent Running lately receives so little play time that it has even largely been forgotten by the nerds of my generation who grew up with it.

For those unfamiliar with the film, it starred Bruce Dern, whose acting career had previously consisted almost entirely of playing young and desperate social outcasts on the wrong side of the law.  It featured a very small dramatis personae, including three robots named Huey, Dewey, and Louie and was set aboard a space freighter named Valley Forge.  It was commie, hippie, environmentalist, anti-corporatist, nuclear disarmament propaganda with bad audio and a shitty soundtrack by Joan Baez.

In order to understand why Douglas Trumbull’s ambitious, low-budget, long-shot project is an important milestone in the course of movie history, one must consider the historical framework of Silent Running’s production and its place in film chronology.  Douglas, along with Donald Trumbull, formed the father-son special effects team which brought Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey to life four years prior and the duo would later go on to fashion the ruling aesthetic of fictional space travel for the next half-century.  2001 was an effects breakthrough which established a new standard in the look, “feel”, and sound audiences would expect of future films.  A Space Odyssey would forever banish the “Flash Gordon” style, with its grossly simplified cartoonish depictions, which had been cultivated by the Saturday serials during an earlier period of cinema domination in the age of single screen theaters.  Kubrick sought to entertain an audience of better educated and more well informed attendees and replaced the circus-like “flash, bang, zoom” film effects which had captivated previous generations of theater goers with a much cooler and sublime style grounded in mundane physics.  Where strangely sleek and aerodynamic spacecraft had previously rocketed (or jetted, more like) across a star-strewn cosmos, vomiting buzzing death rays and crackling electricity to the accompaniment of theremins, the Trumbulls, instead, worked to depict interplanetary travel through a true vacuum and crafted the less airplane-like structures one should more realistically expect to see constructed in orbit, the navigation of which was concerned with thrust impulses, gravitational vectoring, and orbital synchronizations.  IN SILENCE.

This groundbreaking film made an immediate and lasting impact upon the public attention and, in the popular opinion of the time, had obsolesced the older theatrical style.  It should be noted that the gradual development of (what was once) “children’s” entertainment into more sophisticated adult fare was well underway, as seen in the rapid evolution of the genre in the faster adapting world of television production, and that the tangent connecting 2001 to, say, Forbidden Planet roughly parallels that between Star Trek and Lost in Space (in TV’s case, the former appearing immediately in the wake of the later).  The viewing public wanted more serious-minded fiction and A Space Odyssey would have forever solidified this new hyper-realistic style…would have, if not for Star Wars.

George Lucas was a cinema aficionado and film fan who grew up watching the old-fashioned serials and loved the dated aeronautic conceptions of space travel.  He cherished his childhood experiences and liked his “pew pew” and he intended to make Star Wars a tribute to the old ways of his youth.  Because it featured many of the quaint elements that had defined a now outdated notion of space travel, such as ships cruising under continual thrust as though in flight, spewing visible and audible laser “blasts”, Star Wars represented a hard rollback against the trend which the Trumbulls had manifest in 2001 — but the Trumbulls ALSO crafted the style of Star Wars.

A historically curious media consumer might ask “just happened between ’68 and ’77 to reverse such a profound shift in the public’s taste” and a historically informed fellow could respond “Silent Running” (or more authentically, “Silent Running, man”).  Most of the affronts to science which differentiate Star Wars from 2001 also feature prominently (if more crudely) in Silent Running;  inexplicably gravitational floors, machines with personalities, total disregard of cosmic radiation, “space sounds” and such.  Silent Running made the unrealistic permissible again and gave Lucas license to make corn.  More importantly, the signature “Star Wars” style, the “lived-in universe”, with it grungy post industrial pipe-and-girder architecture, was prototyped and nearly perfected in Silent Running.

The reason for the similarities is not as immediately obvious one might, at first, suspect.  When Universal Studios wanted to harvest a new crop of film directors/producers, it initiated a program to sponsor and market five (otherwise) independent film projects under the development of new talent.  Douglas Trumbull, wanting to try his hand at directing, was one the recipients of these golden tickets.  Another was George Lucas.  Trumbull wanted to make science fiction suspense, but Lucas wanted to make a nostalgia piece.  Silent Running was made concurrently with American Graffiti and while each represents a different directorial school, their directors certainly graduated from the same class.

To help with the effort, Trumbull hired college student John Dykstra to perform much of the physical labor of model construction, and Trumbull was sufficiently impressed with his work that he recommended Dykstra to Lucas in substitution while passing on Lucas’ offer to work on Star Wars.  So, while Trumbull would instead produce effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Lucas had Dykstra supervising the effects crew for Industrial Light and Magic, Silent Running being his only previous related work experience.  Dykstra is generally credited with creating the distinct visual style of Star Wars and he learned his craft working for Douglas Trumbull.

Some of the similarity between the two films, however, is deliberate borrowing on Lucas’ part.  The Star Wars director went directly to Trumbull for permission to interpret his robotic repair drones, what we now call “astromechs”.  Though Ralph McQuarrie, the artist behind the design of props, costumes, and spacecraft appearing in Star Wars (now titled A New Hope), Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, and Battlestar Galactica, is often solely credited for the look of R2D2, the little-droid-that-could had the same general layout and function as the drones aboard the cargo carrier Valley Forge.  R2D2, for all his sophistication, is actually less impressive than Huey, Dewey and Louie, who were somehow able to escape the magic rodent’s trademark lawyers.  Lucas’ solution to the problem of animating the small props was inspired by Silent Running as well; whereas Trumbull employed a team of double amputees to work the robot costumes, Lucas would use an actor afflicted with dwarfism.

That Douglas’ father Donald also worked on Star Wars cannot dismissed as inconsequential.

The stylistic connections between the two films was so profound and their execution so alike, that Silent Running’s standing as prior art would later save Universal in court when Lucasfilm tried to stop Battlestar Galactica…but I think I’ll save that story for Part 2.

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