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Universal Studios Home Video presents
Silent Running (1971)

"What's gonna happen if these forests and all this incredible beauty is lost for all time?"
- Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: May 19, 2002

Stars: Bruce Dern
Other Stars: Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint
Director: Douglas Trumbull

Manufacturer: Ritek Digital Studios
MPAA Rating: G for (violence)
Run Time: 01h:29m:32s
Release Date: May 21, 2002
UPC: 025192124327
Genre: sci-fi

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-A-B A-

DVD Review

After masterminding the ground-breaking special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Douglas Trumbull turned next to directing his own science fiction feature. Made for a mere million dollars, it still holds up quite well after thirty years, thanks to some intriguing relationships and even more interesting special effects.

In the year 2009, the forests and plant life of Earth are extinct and survive only in domes floating in space, attached to several ships. The Valley Forge is one of these, manned by treehugger Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) and three other crewmen. When the order comes to destroy the forests so that the ships can be returned to commercial service, Lowell rebels and kills the rest of the crew. Entering silent running mode (a term borrowed from submarine warfare), he feigns the destruction of the ship in the rings of Saturn as a way to ensure the survival of the woodlands. But loneliness begins to prey on him and he begins to deal with the robot drones as if they were human.

Instead of the antiseptic and empty spaceships of 2001, the ships in Silent Running are dirty, unkepmt, packed with stuff and look very much lived in. This was the clear model for the ships of the Star Wars series on which Trumbull also worked. The effects still hold up beautifully today, with judicious use of models and front projection that is quite seamless and indeed far more credible than much of the CG used in films today.

While the story and its political leanings are sympathetic, there are also some serious flaws in connection with that leaning. Dern's performance is a bit over the top during the sequences where he is berating his fellow crew members, though he does much better when he's interacting with the robot drones. A more serious problem are the lame folk songs sung by Joan Baez that are stomach-churning in their syrupy sludginess. A little more effective is some of the symbolism, such as the monk-like robe that Lowell wears, evoking an air of St. Francis of Assisi.

The supporting cast is generally quite good, with the fellow spacemen believably playing space jockeys who are little more than out-of-control frat boys. The double amputees who play the drones make them much more human and sympathetic than the human crew. They provide a human and positive quality to the robots, which had previously been considered menacing more often than not. Dern is quite effective in his portrayal of slipping into the depression of loneliness and his outreach to the drones, whom he names Huey, Dewey and Louie. Despite the weak spots, the picture is still worthwhile and frankly astonishing considering the budget under which it was shot.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen picture looks very good indeed. Colors are bright and rich and fully saturated, and black levels are quite deep. Shadow detail is good as well. There's little visible artifacting and no significant edge enhancement. Since it was shot on a converted aircraft carrier in low light conditions, there is a certain amount of grain (though really not as much as I would have expected), and a slight softness (which may be a result of digitally removing some of the grain). The source print is in very good condition, with only occasional speckling present. For a low budget film that's 30 years old, this still looks great.

In comparison to the now out-of-print disc from Image, the picture looks somewhat better. While that disc also had good color and black levels, the lack of anamorphic enhancement resulted in less picture detail and more artifacting. Far more dot crawl is present on the older edition as well. There is a ton of grain also present on that disc, which confirms my suspicions regarding grain removal on this new Universal disc. The picture seems to be slightly wider, perhaps a 2.0:1 ratio, which results in the title framing being a shade less cramped.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Spanish, Frenchno

Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 mono sounds quite good overall. There is some background hiss and noise present on the original film, and while minimized here it's still audible. The dialogue is quite clear throughout. The score by Peter Schickele (best known as P.D.Q. Bach) sounds decent, with good presence and frequency response. The Baez songs sound crystal clear. During the sequences where the segments of the ship are separating, there is some good low bass present as well. The audio is not changeable on the fly.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
0 Other Trailer(s)Production Notes
2 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Douglas Trumbull and actor Bruce Dern
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: This is a packed special edition with as much behind-the-scenes information as one could ever want. A 1971 "making of" documentary (49m:13s) is mostly a puff piece to promote the picture, but it contains tons of behind the scenes footage and interviews with the double amputees who played the drones. Mostly faded to pink, it's still interesting and contains a good deal of information that isn't in the commentary or the other documentaries. Following this up is a new documentary by Laurent Bouzerou running 30m06s. This includes present day interviews and recollections from Trumbull, and it does tend to replicate some of the material in the commentary.

A 10m:57s segment chatting with Bruce Dern today has some interesting background about how his career was really in the tank when he was offered this picture. No doubt that was how they were able to afford him under this budget. He comes across as forthright and having good memories about making the picture and its reception. The last featurette is a 4m:51s segment on Douglas Trumbull Then and Now, covering some of his work since, including the Showscan process and the development of the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios. This also includes some brief but intriguing behind-the-scenes material related to the ride.

The commentary is always a centerpiece of a special edition. This one features director Trumbull and star Dern. It starts off a bit rocky, with Dern in particular fuzzy on some of the details and mentioning a few facts that may or may not be true. Once they get into the picture and start being chatty, though, everything is fine and there's plenty of anecdotes and some screen-specific comments.

Wrapping up the package is a full-frame trailer (which states that the film is rated PG, although other publicity materials state that it's rated G), a set of production notes and bios and brief filmographies for the four human stars and Trumbull. Overall, just about everything could want to know or see about this picture is here on one disc. Nice job.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

A generally likable ecological space fable with a few aspects that haven't aged well. Yet the special effects are still first-rate in comparison to modern effects. The transfers are about as good as the original film will permit, and there are a huge amount of extras. This should be the last Silent Running you'll ever need to own.


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