Welcome to Double Features, my monthly column dedicated to reviewing a current theatrical release in tandem with a similar classic movie available on DVD. April finds me wondering if Oblivion, Tom Cruise’s new sci-fi effort, shares some DNA with Silent Running, a 1972 cult item that also features a lone astronaut going rogue to protect Earth’s diminishing natural resources from a destructive enemy.
Don’t let the G rating, Joan Baez folk songs, or soft-focus opening shots of bunnies and flowers mislead you. Silent Running – the directorial debut of special effects wiz Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey) – is a somber, adult look at future environmental crisis set entirely aboard a greenhouse space station orbiting a deforested Earth. Bruce Dern goes from docile hippie to psychotic eco-warrior when soulless corporate bosses order him to nuke the last living plant and animal specimens and return to a barren planet sustained by their synthetic amenities. We should be on the oppressed gardener’s side, but his insurrection grows too bloody and paranoid for even the most militant animal activist or macrobiotic foodie to endorse.
Perhaps the only empathetic “characters” in Silent Running are a trio of service robots nicknamed Huey, Dewey, and Louie – reprogrammed to be green-thumbed companions after Dern offs his snide human co-workers. Trumbell’s ingenious miniature droid suits are customized to fit double-amputee actors, who bring a humanizing motion to the walking appliances that’s cute even when they’re digging graves. This is the rare environmental message movie that actually celebrates the machine as nature’s ultimate salvation – a techie’s vision of utopia. It remains progressive today, even if much of the rest of Silent Running suffers from outdated concepts and a meandering plot.
Tom Cruise might hold Bruce Dern’s same custodial occupation on the wasteland of Oblivion, but he’s not going to settle for socializing with a bunch of spherical drones – he wants a hot wife! And not that redheaded nag from his arranged marriage (Andrea Riseborough)… anyone who’s seen Total Recall knows she has ulterior motives for pressing him to spurn Earth for a Saturn moon. No, Cruise dreams of Olga Kurylenko – an enigmatic woman who beckons from repressed memories long before they’re reunited at his secret log cabin tucked inside the last green valley.
The starkest contrast between Silent Running and Oblivion is that Cruise is less preoccupied with rescuing the planet’s ravaged flora and fauna than piecing together his former identity. It’s a self-obsessed journey told largely in cryptic exchanges with coy characters like Morgan Freeman. The mystery unfolds in your head, but never your heart. And once this stooge has finally figured out he’s supposed to be acting like Tom Cruise in a big-budget Hollywood fantasy, many will have grown impatient for some explosions and requisite action.
At best, Silent Running and Oblivion are gentle genre exercises I can only MILDLY RECOMMEND to hardcore science fiction fans thirsting for simple, self-contained stories. Their appeal lies primarily in their visuals. This is a Double Feature that’s easily wiped from the mind, clones of more iconic movies.
Great article, Stuart. I agree with everything you say about Oblivion, but I gotta say its visuals were really amazing, worth the IMAX ticket. The story? Well, it keep me two hours entertained… plot-holes and all. Gotta say Cruise is more “drone” here than in all his lasts efforts combined (he always TRIES… I didn´t see much “trying” here).
P.S. I LEARN A LOT ABOUT CINEMA, CHARACTERS, PLOT… everytime you speak in Now Playing Podcast. I was wondering if you may have published some book (alone or with your NPP pals). Thank you!
Hi,”Stuart in LA”! You must be younger than I am. Sigh. For instead of looking forward from when “Silent Running” was made to now, you look back. I didn’t see “Silent Running” in theaters in the 1970s, just on regualr broadcast TV. But I made up for that and got the VHS edition when it was new, btu I didn’t get the LP movie soundtrack until I had to pay collector’s prices for it at “Trek Expo” in Tulsa. I’m not sure if I have the DVD or not. But anyway, I love both movies for what they are. Until “Silent Running”, I wasn’t sure who Joan Baez was. I still root for him to save the animals and plants, so your comment about his going to far, I disagree with. His shipmates were too stupid. Oh, he wasn’t in a space station in orbit over Planet Earth, he was in the “American Airlines Space Freighter VALLEY FORGE”, along with the Berkshire and others, in orbit near the Planet Saturn, if you’ll recall the Rings scenes. So he was in the Frontier, not in US Airspace. But anyway… Hopefully because of movies like that one and “Oblivion”, we won’t have to deal with any more people that don’t care about Earth and how we live on it. “By deal with”, I mean do to them that was done to them in “Silent Running”, because everyone will know better now than to think as they did. However, as “42” reminded me last night, with how some people were still fighting the Civil War in the 1940s and for the wrong side, racisim wise, well, we’re stil going to have people that think the planet was put here for us to abuse and do with as we see fit even if it means we become extinct in the process. Now beware, this attitude is my spiteful reaction to yours concerning “Silent Running”!