After watching Damien Chazelle’s First Man recently, I felt it was important to revisit the film that introduced me to the glory of the genre at seven years old, and which remains one of my favourite science fiction films of all time.
It’s clear that Silent Running was one of Chazelle’s primary influences. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the posters. The poster of the 1972 film depicts planet earth on the left side of the image, yet the right side is dominated by Bruce Dern’s calm, contemplative expression as he stares at the viewer, with the whole picture coloured an ethereal blue. The spaceship itself takes up a mere corner of the shot. If we look at First Man’s Poster, we see an image of the moon, yet Ryan Gosling’s facial expression dominates the satellite. Although Chazelle chooses a black background, the earth retains the same azure blue as Silent Running. While both men are astronauts, their helmets are diminished from view to emphasise their human faces. First Man’s plot supposedly centres around a retelling of the 1969 moon landings, yet the film’s title specifically tells us otherwise. Likewise, Silent Running supposedly depicts a space exhibition to preserve the last existing foliage of a dystopian planet earth, but diverges on a more personal path.
Both films merely use space as a backdrop to explore their character’s inner turmoil. Neil Armstrong’s journey is constantly framed by images of his deceased daughter Karen, and Dern’s appropriately named Freeman Lowell is haunted by the idea of having to destroy the only surviving nature of the human world. Although both films have noises of rockets or machinery, they retain an all-too-rare quiet in their narratives through these human stories. We are not subjected to the loud laser blasts and explosions of Star Wars. Instead, we watch contemplative silences and close-up shots as we view Neil and Freeman pondering their grief and confusion.
Even when these characters are not silent, they deliver powerful speeches about their situations. In one of my favourite monologues of all time, Freeman informs his cynical comrades about the state of the earth. Although we never receive a single image of our planet, his descriptions about its static temperature and robotic population evoke a damning image of its bleak landscape. Silent Running is a film about rumination and human fault that just happens to be set in outer space.
Both films merely use space as a backdrop to explore their character’s inner turmoil
Unsurprisingly, these ‘quiet’ films have often been met with derision by the general public. If you take a look at Silent Running’s current score on Rotten Tomatoes, it stands at a puny 67%. I implore you to look beyond this arbitrary scoring and view one of the finest ‘space’ films in the sci-fi canon.
Intriguingly, First Man’s negative reviewers appear to have similar problems with the 1972 film. Matthew Lickona of the San Diego Reader remarks that “Ryan Gosling’s impassive visage must have the gravitational pull of a black hole”, while Adam Graham of Detroit News comments that “For a story that shoots for the moon, it has trouble leaving the ground”. Both critics miss the internal focus of the film. Gosling is constantly tormented by memories of Karen, and this is reflected with constant close-up shots; these memories inevitability keep Gosling grounded and distanced from other human beings. I saw similar complaints about one of my other favourite science-fiction films, Arrival. Many viewers seemed to expect full-on war between humans and the alien spaceships, and were disappointed by the ‘quiet’ narrative of a woman (Amy Adams) discovering her identity. The majority of 21 st century viewers seem to expect a far more action-driven, dialogue-heavy movie to satisfy their tastes.
But Silent Running works for me just fine. I never thought I could get much engagement out of three small, hobbling robots, but Huey, Dewey and Louie prove to be the beating mechanical hearts of the film. The final shot of Louie as he waters greenery with a battered watering can alone in the space station still hits me every time I remember it.
In space, no one can hear you scream. And in the case of these films, that’s a truly wonderful thing.