“Take good care of the forest, Dewey!” That is astronaut Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) talking to his robot Dewey on their giant spaceship Valley Forge way out past Saturn. There’s a forest in space, you ask? Yes, six of them, in fact, complete with bunnies, turtles, squirrels and such. (No predators, though.)
The forests are inside massive geodesic domes, and they are the last of Earth’s flora and fauna, sent out into space until conditions improve so they can be brought home for replanting, and then for replenishing the planet. There’s no explanation whatsoever for what could have wrecked the entire globe, but given that this film was made at the height of the late ’60’s-early ’70’s environmentalist frenzy brought on by alarmist books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), we can guess at the usual suspects: “too many” people, too much pollution.
With the help of three little toddling robots, Lowell has been taking good care of these forests for the last eight years, and doing so has become his raison d’être. The same can’t be said for the Valley Forge’s other crew members, John (Cliff Potts), Andy (Jesse Vint) and Marty (Ron Rifkin). They let Lowell work away while they have fun racing around the ship’s big storage area in motorized buggies.
These guys are so clueless, they can’t even see the point of preserving the irreplaceable cargo they’re entrusted with. Back on Earth they’ve had company in their irresponsibility; John tells Lowell that if anybody cared about preserving things, they would have done something about it years ago.
Lowell is gentle with the forests and tender with the little animals, but he gets furious with his crewmates when they don’t share his reverence for nature. Tensions simmer between him and the others during a poker game, which he wins. The men are all expecting a transmission from Earth about the immediate future of their mission.
Lowell has a fond hope they’ll be ordered home to replant the forests under a revived parks and forests system. With you in charge, says Marty. Lowell asks why not, he’s the best qualified? Marty replies, “Lowell, you’re dreaming.” That sets Lowell off: “And you don’t think it’s time somebody had a dream again? Huh? You don’t think it’s time somebody cared enough to have a dream?” What will happen if the beautiful forests are lost for all time, he wants to know.
The message from Earth arrives, and it shatters Lowell. The crew is told, with no reason given, to “nuclear destruct” the forests the next morning and “return to commercial service.” Yes, they have a stash of mini-nukes on board, and yes, this is a commercial ship – an American Airlines Space Freighter, to be exact. Kind of an awkward product placement, but the (real-life) airline must not have minded.
As here, liberal moviemakers so often make private enterprise, not government, the bad guys. At least they were prescient. They didn’t know they were anticipating the rise of today’s private space firms United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Rocket Lab, etc. – none of which has any plans to nuke any forests.
The next morning, the formerly lazy John, Andy and Marty are efficiently planting (pardon the pun) the nukes and jettisoning the domed forests far enough away to detonate safely. Lowell has retreated to one forest, forlornly spading away as, one after the other, four nuclear blasts go off. After the fourth, he can’t take it anymore and he confronts John, who’s come to plant a nuke. They fight, and Lowell crosses the Rubicon: he kills John. He mutters, “You can’t blow up this forest!”
Not only that, Lowell now launches the next domed forest, nuclear-primed as it is, with Andy and Mark inside it. We don’t see the two inside the dome; all we know is that it blows up. Environmentalist Lowell has killed his three crewmates, nuking two of them in the process. He’s nuked a forest, too.
Lowell needs to make a getaway, so he tells Earth there’s been an accident. Earth tells him he’s going to crash into Saturn’s rings, and suggests he might want to kill himself before that happens. Lowell says he can’t do that, and Earth tells him, “God bless you. You’re a hell of an American.” Lowell says under his breath, “I think I am.”
The Valley Forge survives the crash through Saturn’s rings in a psychedelic light show. Lowell thinks he’s now safely alone. He programs his robots Huey and Dewey (Louie didn’t survive Saturn’s rings) to care for the forest. At John’s grave he says, “I would like to be able to say a prayer, but I don’t really know how to say it….I don’t think I’ll ever be able to excuse what I did. But I had to do it.”
After a while, a ship unexpectedly approaches to rescue Lowell. He doesn’t want to be rescued, so he’s got some new and tough decisions to make. What will he do?
Genesis 2:15 tells us, “The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.” Our Eden, our Earth, is still here despite liberals’ every doomsday scenario. That’s going to continue, and deep down we all know it.
This movie is important because it was one of the forces that helped imprint in people’s minds the notions that Planet Earth is in mortal danger, that our resources are going to run out, that the fault is people not caring, that environmentalists are the bright ones and everybody else is stupid, and that you should be angry at the stupid people and yell at them and fight them, all to save the ecosystem.
Silent Running is rated G. There are some profanities, three murders happen, and we see a man’s wounded, bloodied leg several times. Douglas Trumbull directed and also provided special effects. Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, and Steven Bochco wrote the script. Charles F. Wheeler was the cinematographer and Aaron Stell the film editor. Francisco Lombardo was the set decorator. Peter Schickele composed the score, and he and Diane Lampert wrote two songs that Joan Baez sang.
— Dan Engler