Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Silent Running (1972)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Silent Running (1972)

In Douglas Trumbull's directorial debut film - it was a low-budget, groundbreaking, classic sci-fi environmental-message movie with its speculative vision of a dystopic eco-disaster, and the results of ecological preservation in space; the environmental disaster story with a socially-conscious message told about the aftermath of a climate catastrophe (with a greenhouse effect causing temperatures to stabilize at 75 degrees), efforts to locate new planets to populate or terraform, and the eventual goal to return carefully-tended plants to Earth for reforestation. The film served as an inspiration for two other similar films: Disney's animated feature Wall-E (2008) and Moon (2009).

Visual effects pioneer Trumbull was previously responsible for the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and his future films included Oscar-nominated Special Effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and Blade Runner (1982).

The script was co-written by Deric Washburn, future director Michael Cimino, and Steven Bochco. Funded on a budget of $1 million without an expensive advertising campaign, the film flopped at the box-office, but was revived as a cult film by viewings on television. It resonated with the late 1960s counter-cultural movement and concerns about the environment. The three anthropomorphized drone robots, Dewey, Huey and Louie were the first non-humanoid film robots that were propelled to walk and operated by four human bilateral amputee actors (who walked on their arms) hidden inside their boxy frames. Trumbull had acquired the idea of using human amputees inside the drone units from Tod Browning's Freaks (1932). Later, the drones became an inspiration for Star Wars' R2-D2 robot. Peter Schickele's retro soundtrack featured two songs by famed folk singer Joan Baez.

The early 1970s film's tagline was: "Amazing companions on an incredible adventure...that journeys beyond imagination!"

  • the film's opening titles were accompanied by close-ups of blossoming flowers in a moist forest ecosystem or idyllic arboretum, and woodland creatures including a snail, a turtle, a croaking frog and cute frolicking bunnies
  • long-haired, non-conforming hippie loner and botanist-ecologist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) was observed swimming within the fertile forest surroundings; and then, as he fed one of the bunnies, the camera pulled back to reveal that the robed man was onboard the USS Valley Forge; a voice-over from Squad Commander Anderson (voice of Roy Engel) during a farewell speech, described the futuristic mission: "On this first day of a new century [January 1, 2000], we humbly beg forgiveness and dedicate these last forests of our once beautiful nation to the hope that they will one day return and grace our foul Earth. Until that day, may God bless these gardens and the brave men who care for them"
  • the Valley Forge was one of a fleet of eight converted and orbiting space-freighters (sponsored by American Airlines) in outerspace circling around Saturn; he was inside a transparent, pressurized greenhouse geodesic biodome attached to the ship - one of the freighter's six domes
  • maintenance for the ship was provided by three beautifully-designed, faceless, silent, ecologically-friendly, anthropomorphic drones or robots with short legs, originally with dull names: Drone # 1, Drone # 2, and Drone # 3 (Mark Persons, Steven Brown, Cheryl Sparks and Larry Whisenhunt)
  • the other freighters besides the USS Valley Forge were all named after US national parks - the Berkshire, Sequoia, Yellowstone, Acadia, Blue Ridge, Glacier, and Mojave
One Geodesic Greenhouse Dome Atop a Large Cargo Spaceship
The Fleet of Eight Massive Cargo Spaceships with Geodesic Domes
  • the monk-robed, off-beat, outcast elder Lowell and his younger, slovenly crew were half-way through a year-long mission to preserve, cultivate and tend to the last remaining plant specimens stripped from a radiation-devastated planet Earth; caring deeply for the plants he was tending, the dedicated Lowell seemed to be the only one fulfilling the mission; he became upset with his three other coarse, disruptive and irresponsible fellow crew members, all forest-rangers: Andy Wolf (Jesse Vint), Marty Barker (Ron Rifkin), and John Keenan (Cliff Potts); the threesome were acting callously and insensitively by noisily racing and driving wildly in motorized cart-vehicles (or ATVs) throughout the freighter and regularly desecrating the delicate environment of the biodome and running through the flower-beds; Lowell threw his rake at them in anger; the group spent most of their time playing poker or pool

Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern)

John Keenan (Cliff Potts)

Andy Wolf (Jesse Vint)

Marty Barker (Ron Rifkin)
  • the group was awaiting an important transmission from Con Central; although Keenan predicted cut-backs in their program, the well-qualified Lowell was hoping and 'dreaming,' after 8 years of working in space on the project, that he might be promoted to Director of the parks and forest system, to repopulate the Earth with trees, flowers, vegetables and fruits: ("What's gonna happen if these forests and all this incredible beauty is lost for all time?")
  • the brief transmission from Squad Commander Anderson to the ship referenced executive order A.U.C. 3423 - the USS Valley Forge was ordered to begin the next morning "to abandon, then nuclear destruct all the forests, and return our ships to commercial service" - it meant jettisoning and destroying all of the geodesic greenhouse domes, with "no explanation" for the abrupt turn-around; Lowell reacted with a stony stare and uttered: "It's insane!"
  • Joan Baez' rendition of the film's theme song "Silent Running" played as Lowell entered the freighter's domed structure to look lovingly at the plants about to be destroyed - the song urged future generations to cultivate and harvest the land: ("...Gather your children To your side In the sun Tell them All they love will die Tell them why In the sun Tell them It's not too late Cultivate One by one Tell them to harvest And rejoice in the sun")
  • the next morning at breakfast, Lowell's fellow crew members derisively joked at him when he cut open a fresh cantaloupe, and called it "real food" grown in the dirt - different from their preferred "dried, synthetic" food from a dispensing unit: ("This happens to be nature's greatest gift"); he attempted to convince them of its uniqueness and appetizing taste: "I picked it and I fixed it. And it has a taste, and it has some color! And it has a smell! And it calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth! And there were valleys! And there were plains of tall, green grass that you could lie down in, that you could go to sleep in! And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air! And there were things growing all over the place, not just in some domed enclosures blasted some millions of miles out into space!"
  • Lowell criticized John for offering the same three reasons to return to Earth: "There's hardly any more disease. There's no more poverty. Nobody's out of a job"; instead, with a sharp retort, he reminded John of what he was truly missing in life: "There is no more beauty, and there's no more imagination. And there are no frontiers left to conquer," and everyone's attitude was the same - apathy: "Nobody cares!"; with tears in his eyes, he bemoaned the fact that a little girl wouldn't grow up with leaves and trees; he begged his fellow workers to not destroy the irreplaceable domes: "Please don't blow up the domes!"
The Nuclear Bombs Ready to be Armed or Deployed and Detonated
  • they ignored his pleadings; soon after, domes were being blown up from the nearby Berkshire freighter; after the threesome prepared to detonate their own freighter's domes, the agitated Lowell became visibly angry after four of the six Valley Forge domes were jettisoned six miles out and destroyed with nuclear charges; upset and crazed, Lowell rebelled and refused to allow any more domes to be destroyed, and decided to save the animals and plant life and refoliate Earth with the last surviving vegetation
  • to carry out his plan, Lowell blocked the path of crewmate John Keenan who arrived in one of the motorized carts to plant explosives in his favorite "forest" dome; they struggled together and Lowell's left leg was struck and injured; he murdered Keenan with strangulation by pushing a shovel handle against his neck - he reiterated: ("You can't blow up this forest!")
  • with a bloody left leg and limping to the control room, Lowell killed the two other crewmen, Marty and Andy, by trapping them in the second-to-last dome - he jettisoned the dome with them inside before it exploded; now, there was only one remaining forest dome
  • Lowell radioed for the three ship's service robots (# 1, # 2, and # 3) to return to the main cargo area before executing his hijack plan; meanwhile, all of the other freighters reported that they had fully completed the jettisoning process; Lowell communicated to Captain “Big Billy” Neal (Joseph Campanella) on the lead ship, the Berkshire, that there were problems with the main coupling and the ship was uncontrollably accelerating toward Saturn
Maintenance Robots With Their Original Number-Names and New Names

Drone # 1 (Dewey, grayish-blue) in Closeup

The Three Drones Ordered to Return to the Control Room

2-Huey (orange), 3-Louie (green), 1-Dewey (grayish-blue)
  • when pressed to finish his own jettisonings, Lowell staged a trick explosion that deliberately sent the USS Valley Forge toward Saturn and its outer rings; he relayed how the premature detonation of Valley Forge's Dome # 2 had also caused explosive collateral ship damage and a hull breach in the main cargo deck (simulated by cargo modules off the starboard side thrown into space by the drones); Lowell then frantically reported that Wolf, Barker, and Keenan had been accidentally ejected in the dome and blown up
  • to further execute his hijack plan, Lowell notified lead commander Anderson that he was unable to change his course toward Saturn due to the irreparable damage; he was advised it would be an extremely risky and dangerous passage and he might die: "It's a very bad angle. You know, these ships weren't built to shoot the rapids"
  • Lowell reprogrammed the three innocent and protective robots to answer and respond to him only, and then ordered them to report to the surgical room immediately, to help perform an operation on his bleeding leg; Drone # 2 (orange) would perform the surgery, while Drone # 3 (green) would handle the oxygen and anesthesia, and Drone # 1 (grayish-blue) would assist

Oxygen and Anesthesia During His Own Surgery

# 2 Drone (orange) Performing the Surgery

# 1 Drone (grayish-blue) Assisting With an Extended Arm
  • after the successful surgery as Lowell was navigating toward the outer rings of Saturn, Anderson suggested that he might consider committing suicide before the catastrophic event, and that a search party would be dispatched for him on the other side of Saturn; Anderson ended the conversation with praise: "God bless you, Freeman. You're a hell of an American"; Lowell replied: "Thank you, sir. I think I am," and laid down for a long-needed rest
  • during the fierce, rough and turbulent passage around Saturn, Lowell watched on a monitor as # 3 Drone (green) was lost when it was blown off the outside of the ship; one of its feet became stuck in the grating and was left behind; after emerging on the other side (with the ship and single dome intact) and proceeding further into deep space, Lowell instructed the two surviving robots (# 1 and # 2) to bury murdered crewman Keenan's body in the biodome; he offered a brief, regretful prayer for the deceased crew members, summarizing how they weren't his friends, but that he still liked them: ("I don't think that I'll ever be able to excuse what it is that I did, but I had to do it"), before Keenan's body was covered with dirt
  • as they continued to journey into deep space, the two remaining drones (# 1 and # 2) - Lowell's sole companions, were renamed after Donald Duck's nephews: # 1 became Dewey (grayish-blue) and # 2 became Huey (orange); # 3 (green) was posthumously renamed Louie; they would still perform their accustomed duties to provide maintenance for the ship, but in addition, they would function as Lowell's new family of pet-like "boys" (who responded with squeaks and flashing lights)

Renaming the Two Drones, Lowell's Two New Companions

Lowell With Two Remaining Robots In the Biodome Forest, Teaching Them to Plant a Tree

The Conservation Pledge
  • after a difficult attempt to teach the drones how to plant a tree, and as Lowell attended to further horticultural matters, Joan Baez provided accompaniment by singing: "Rejoice in the Sun" ("Earth between my toes And a flower in my hair That's what I was wearing when we lay Among the ferns..."); next to Lowell's bed was a small poster with a Conservation Pledge, to preserve the forests (and "protect little trees") for childrens' future: ("I give my pledge as an American to save and faithfully to defend from waste the natural resources of my country -- its soil and minerals, its forests, waters, and wildlife")
  • over time, Lowell's feelings of loneliness and underlying guilt grew deeper in the isolated environment, prompting him to miss human companionship (he had brief flashbacks of his fellow crew members, remembering how he had murdered them); his mental well-being also began to suffer; he adopted some of his co-workers' neglectful habits and coarse behavior that he had criticized them for; he started to recklessly go joyriding in one of the motorized cart-buggies; to simulate having friends, he invited (and programmed) the two robots to play poker with him in the recreation room, and although one-sided, he pretended to be carrying on a meaningful dialogue with them; he also began to regularly eat synthetic food

Lowell - Bored and Restless

Robots Programmed to Play Poker With Him

Eating Synthetic Artificial Food
  • one day, he suspected that his irresponsible actions had led to signs that the biodome was mysteriously dying and the plants were inexplicably wilting and turning brown ("What has happened to the forest?"); he felt that his mission to save the forest was failing; Lowell became frantic as he tried to study, investigate and solve the dome's growth problems, but couldn't find out what was wrong; as he drove in a motorized buggy to the biodome to meet with Huey, he carelessly struck and seriously damaged the robot in one of the ship's corridors
  • grief-stricken and apologetic, he struggled in an attempt to repair Huey's dented frame and one unusable extension arm, but failed and felt miserable for causing the accident; Lowell was depressed and downtrodden for other reasons too: "It's just not working. The forest is dying. I have tried everything"; he was showing signs of disregard for cleaning up after himself - plates of half-eaten food were scattered around the cabin
After Crashing Into Huey with a Buggy, Lowell Attempting to Repair the Heavily-Damaged Robot
  • and then, Lowell received a radio transmission from the nearby sister ship-freighter, the Berkshire, on a rescue mission; he feared that his sabotage of the mission would eventually be discovered; Anderson explained how the forest dome had to be jettisoned and safely abandoned (without blowing it up in the darkness of space) since it wouldn't survive due to its extreme distance from the sun; Lowell also learned that he would be picked up and rescued in just six hours
  • Lowell suddenly realized the reason for the biodome's slow death; it wasn't due to neglect, but to a lack of sunlight that prohibited photosynthesis: ("It's the sun....We can still save the forest!"); to correct the situation inside the biodome, Lowell installed a series of bright artificial arc lights-lamps
  • then, he instructed the fully-functioning drone Dewey to remain in the last remaining, well-lit dome to tend, take care of, and maintain the forest plants: ("I've taught you everything that I know about taking care of the forest here. And, uh, that's all that you have to do from now on, is just maintain the forest. Now, these lights here will do the job that the sun would do. They'll help revive everything. I, uh, I just can't do it anymore. You see, things, uh, things just haven't worked out for me. Take care of yourself, Dewey"); he tearfully bid Dewey farewell before jettisoning the biodome to safety, to preserve it, and again spoke his final goodbye to Dewey in voice-over: ("Take good care of the forest, Dewey")
  • Lowell returned to the main ship with the injured Huey, and self-sacrificially prepared nuclear charges to destroy the Valley Forge (with himself and Huey on board), only two hours before docking; with the film's final lines of dialogue, Lowell told Huey: "You know, when I was a kid, I put a note into a bottle, and it had my name and address on it. And then I threw the bottle into the ocean. And I never knew if anybody ever found it"
  • after the Valley Forge was obliterated with nuclear charges, Dewey was seen drifting off into the cosmic darkness of deep space, but was successfully caring for the forest of young trees in the brightly-lit biodome (using Lowell's old-fashioned, colorful, battered watering can); the film concluded with Joan Baez's repeat rendition of the film's theme song

Exterior View of American Airlines Space-Freighter - Valley Forge

Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern)

Lowell's Stunned Reaction to the Order to Destroy All Six of His Freighter's Geodesic Domes: "It's Insane!"

Lowell Lovingly Tending to the Plants About to be Destroyed in the Dome

At Breakfast, Lowell Preaching the Virtues of Naturally-Grown Food vs. Synthetic Food

Cute Bunnies - Unaware of Their Possible Fate

Domes Ejected and Blown Up From the Nearby Berkshire Freighter

The Upset Lowell Hearing the Blasts and Seeing the Light From the Destruction of the First Few Domes

Facing Off and Not Allowing Another Dome to Be Jettisoned and Blown Up

Murder of Crewman John Keenan

Lowell Trapping the Other Two Crew Members In the Second-to-Last Dome and Jettisoning Them Out into Space to be Blown Up

Ejected Cargo Modules to Simulate an Accidental Explosion as the Ship Entered the Outer Rings of Saturn

Lowell's Bloodied, Injured Left Leg

The Risky Course of Valley Forge Through Saturn's Rings

The Three Robots on the Outside of the Freighter-Ship During Space Turbulence

Lowell Thrown Around During the Rough Passage Around Saturn

The Drones' Burial of the Murdered Crewman

Lowell Installing Bright Lamps to Save the Dying Plants in the Forest (Within the Last Biodome)

Lowell's Final Instructions to Dewey to Tend and Care For the Forest

A Tearful Goodbye: "Take care of yourself, Dewey"

Jettisoning the Last Biodome Into Space

Preparing Nuclear Charges to Destroy the Valley Forge, While Sharing Early Memories with Huey

Dewey Seen Caring For the Biodome in Deep Space with Lowell's Colorful, Battered, Old-Fashioned Watering Can


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