Silent Running is similarly inventive, although Trumbull’s focus on nature sits alongside that of machinery. The film courses with an irrepressible techno-optimism which, compared to the modern backlash against tech companies, feels almost quaint. “Part of Silent Running’s theme is the relationship between Dern and his drones,” Trumbull explained, referring to the three helpful robots Lowell increasingly relies upon. “It’s not 2001: A Space Odyssey – machinery isn’t malevolent – they’re simply tools.” During the film’s second act, Lowell teaches the robots – affectionately named Dewey, Huey, and Louie – how to plant trees, effectively reengineering their function towards environmental good. These robots, often treated by critics as little more than a cute addition, might in fact prove to be the film’s most influential aspect, helping anticipate a new configuration of machine-assisted wilderness.
The film’s greatest visual trick is its simplest; framing the lush foliage against the pitch black of the universe and whirring machines makes organic life all the more miraculous. By the end, nature has been spared destruction; to an extent, it has been emancipated. One of the final shots – that of the lonely droid Dewey diligently caring for the plants – evokes another counterculture work, writer Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. “I like to think of a cybernetic meadow,” it begins. “Where mammals and computers live together in mutually programming harmony, like pure water touching clear sky.” This appears in tune with Trumbull’s heartfelt, ecological take on sci-fi. Silent Running’s gentle radicalism and hopeful vision of nature and technology will feel corny to some, but to me, it’s positively cosmic.
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