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By its very nature, we expect hard science-fiction to be emotionally distant and cold, mirroring the glory and the shame of the human experience through speculative technology. Silent Running's tonal experimentation mixes terrific hard science-fiction that contains some of the greatest space effects and models of the time (No surprise there, director Douglas Trumbull was in charge of the visual effects on 2001: A Space Odyssey) with an emotionally vibrant and vulnerable plea for the preservation of our nature.
That's a hard market to pinpoint: Those looking for an emotionally resonant drama might be turned off by the film's clinical approach to its technology, and sci-fi fans who eat that stuff up might think that Bruce Dern's expressive performance and the melancholic Joan Baez soundtrack are tonally over-the-top and aggressively on-the-nose. These qualities that turned Silent Running into a cult favorite after it was mostly ignored upon its initial release are also what makes it such a singular and wonderful experience. It's one of those rare films that simultaneously manages to be pragmatic and idealist without becoming thematically schizophrenic.
Dern deliver pretty much a one-man show as Freeman (Right off the bat, we get an unabashedly on-the-nose name for the protagonist, but that's how Silent Running plays), a man who loves nature in a future where it has pretty much ceased to exist. Due to unfettered industrialization, Earth can't cultivate any new plant or floral life anymore. As a last ditch attempt to preserve such nature, ships that look like Discovery One from 2001 with a bunch of green domes attached to the front are sent out to space.
Freeman serves as the botanist on one of these ships, and is furious when he finds out that the authorities on Earth want to cut down on costs by ordering the ships to be destroyed. All others comply, which makes Freeman's ship the last remnant of Earth's natural beauty. In order to save it, Freeman will have to make some morally crushing decisions and go rogue. Even so, how long can he survive as he drifts through the coldness and isolation of space?
Dern's intense performance is key to understanding Freeman's motivations while instantly letting the audience empathize with him. The photographic effects and the model work are exceptional, to the point that they don't look dated at all fifty years after production. That's of course expected from Trumbull, but he also showcases a unique vision for the genre, as well as a delightfully mannered pace that lets us feel the immediacy of his environmentalist message.
I compared my copy of the previous Blu-ray release with Arrow's new disc, which contains a new 1080p transfer from a fresh 4K restoration. Those looking for a naturalist feel of this 70s classic, with the heavy grain and film blemishes that come with it, might prefer the old transfer, but this is the cleanest and most detailed home video release of Silent Running I've seen by a long mile. The vibrancy of the green nature that Freeman's struggling to preserve is meant to contrast, thematically and visually, with the cold grayness of the ship itself, so a dynamic range in such contrast is key to grasping Trumbull's vision for the film. Arrow accomplishes this with literally flying colors.
Some fans might be disappointed that Arrow didn't remix and remaster the film's original mono mix to a surround offering. But Silent Running is such a quintessentially 70s sci-fi experience, that such an approach might have imbued it with unnecessary noise. The DTS-HD 1.0 mono track is excellent in achieving dynamic range and clear fidelity through a single speaker. Baez's wistful songs never sounded better.
Commentary by Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw: This new commentary by the two film critics goes into great detail about the production, as well as the way the film was received over time. They also open up a lot of fun discussions about 70s science-fiction, which might delight genre hounds.
Commentary by Douglas Trumbull and Bruce Dern: This commentary, ported over from previous releases, is essential for fans who want to get an unvarnished audio record of the production, warts and all.
No Turning Back: This new 13-minute interview (Audio with images from the film) with film music historian Jeff Bond dives into the score by Peter Schickele, how he was chosen and how he approached the story.
First Run: This new visual essay by filmmaker Jon Spira explores how Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino and Steven Bochco's script came together, using excerpts from the script with overlays of concept art from the production.
Making of Silent Running: This great documentary runs for almost an hour and should be watched first, if you haven't seen it on the previous DVD and Blu-ray releases.
Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull: This intimate half-hour interview with Trumbull goes over how he was able to create an expensive science-fiction film with an experimental tone during the aftermath of the free-for-all late 60s in Hollywood.
Then and Now: Trumbull rather begrudgingly talks about the hardships of making emotionally resonant and compelling science-fiction films in contemporary climate.
We also get a Trailer and Photo Gallery.
With climate change being the major issue of our time, and as warnings of a point of no return fall on deaf ears, it's hard not to feel a mix of melancholy and dread while contemplating Silent Running's ominous yet somehow hopeful final shot. As tonally uncategorizable as it may be, Trumbull's crowning achievement endures as a singular masterwork, and Arrow's terrific new A/V transfer and bountiful extras makes this new disc a must buy.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com