Silent Running (1972)

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A soporific film whose message seems to be – eco-terrorism, it’s noble. (Spoilers, sort of.)

Read a brief synopsis and Silent Running looks interesting, it imagines the dreadful prospect of a dystopian world that’s bereft of wildlife and personality. It’s well intentioned and quite prescient; it chimes with contemporary environmental issues. This should all be interesting, but it’s very dull indeed.

Silent Running takes place aboard a spaceship which has several domes containing an array of plants and wildlife. These are maintained by Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), a man whose strong views on ecology make him a pariah among the other crewmen. When Lowell’s forestry is arranged to be destroyed by the powers that be, he reacts in a way that is, to understate, morally dubious.

One of the main reasons why this is all such a drag is because we’re given no depth, it isn’t explained why Earth is a barren dystopia or why they’re going to Saturn. You expect the crew members to imbue the film with substance however the character development is cut fatally short when Lowell blows them up early in the film. This plot development doesn’t do many favours for the sole remaining character either, because as much as Lowell’s indifferent and stupid colleagues annoyed me, did they really deserve to die? The film seems to justify their hurried dispatching, we’re supposed to care for this drab murderer and his forest.

One-man shows like Cast Away require a good leading man in an extraordinary situation. The last one I saw was All Is Lost with Robert Redford. It was the most extreme example of the genre I’d seen and was grossly overrated on the ‘tomato-meter’ at 94%, but the ambitious film just about worked for me.

Silent Running gets neither an interesting lead character nor a compelling situation. Outside of an impassioned diatribe against his colleagues’ indifference about the environment and the human condition, Lowell is a long faced, shaggy haired non-entity. Once he is the sole remaining homo-sapien, Lowell’s only companions are three charisma bereft robots called Huey, Dewey and Louie (this is cute apparently), whose organs of communication are metal flaps that emit a quiet, meaningless sort of whistle.

The supposed spectacle of Silent Running is also underwhelming. Director Douglas Trumbull worked on the special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey, they’re very much of their time in parts but nonetheless sensory and epic in scope. However, in Silent Running, Trumbull’s directorial debut, the exterior shots of the spacecraft often look decidedly fake and miniature and the explosions are lamentably dated and intangible.

I watched this film on Mark Kermode’s recommendation. He loves this film, he considers it superior to 2001 and shockingly names it one of the greatest films ever made. He says that it’s a human tale, that Dern’s relationship with the robots is deeply affecting, I couldn’t disagree more. The reason why Kermode likes it so much is because it’s nostalgic for him, he saw at just 11-years-old and subsequently grew up loving the film – I’ve had similar attachment to films like Jaws, which is of course infinitely better.

After a while I was willing for the film to end, I became entirely indifferent towards the narrative’s dreary developments and the politics beneath them. I love nature and beautiful landscapes, I empathised with Lowell to a certain degree, however his actions make the film’s message all rather muddled. Silent Running may appeal to Green extremists, however I think even they’ll grow tired once they realise how little there is beyond its eco-friendly sentiment.

50%

Into The Wild (2007)

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McCandless was a self-serving fool, and the narrative suffers because of this.

This film was recommended to me by a couple of friends, I was looking forward to it, it had an interesting premise on face value, but by not even half-way through, the film had lost its appeal for me purely because of the ostensibly ‘inspirational’ material it was based on.

The film, directed by Sean Penn, follows Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young, idealistic university graduate who yearns to leave modern civilisation and live off the land like some sort of noble savage.

I have backpacked around Europe and South East Asia, I wholeheartedly understand the appeal of travelling for extended periods of time and living out of a rucksack. I also, like many others I’m sure, can empathise with McCandless’s contempt for the expectations, uncertainty and pressure of young adulthood. But, quite frankly, McCandless was a selfish fool who lost all sense of rationality whilst making a grand statement about civilised society. He left his only sister with their emotionally distant, shallow and contentious parents to pursue his ill-fated adventure totally unprepared. So unfortunately, I couldn’t see past the lead character’s naivety and self importance.

But despite this, I did find myself compelled to watch McCandless’s interaction with the film’s supporting cast; the hippies, old man Ron Hanz (Hal Holbrook) and dare I say it even Kristen Stewart’s role were infinitely more interesting than McCandless’s ‘inspiring’ mission. To think some viewers find his story ‘inspirational’ shows entertainingly poor judgement, they can’t have seen the whole film! Again, I stress that this film isn’t bad film making, it features good performances from the whole cast and some good emotive interplay between them, but it is all set within the context of the lead character’s idiotic escapade, a fundamental aspect which I cannot bypass.

It’s a shame that McCandless has been immortalised for being so reckless.

63%

Baraka (1992)

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I can’t see how someone couldn’t like this film.

A bold statement certainly, however Baraka has an immense beauty that is surely universal in appeal. It is a documentary that’s without  narrative or narration, it captures a veritable plethora of imagery that reminds us that Earth is indeed a baraka, which is Arabic and Hebrew for ‘blessing’.

Any attempt to derive meaning or identify connection becomes merely incidental as you’re presented with the hypnotic scenery that Ron Fricke and his team have captured; it must have been difficult for them to cut their glorious footage down to 97 minutes. The film traverses verdant jungles, epic mountain ranges, sweeping temple complexes, arid deserts,  imposing cityscapes and haunting landmarks of evil such as Auschwitz and the Cambodian S-21 prison. Its human subjects are of all colours and creeds, with much of the film focusing on those who are less fortunate and sometimes utterly destitute. It is a sensational and occasionally disturbing cross-section of the planet’s landscapes, cultures and history.

The stunning wide shots and time lapses are scored with heady ambient music by Michael Stearns. His music is a cacophony of tribal chants, chimes and drums that’s vital in creating Baraka’s truly sensory immersion. My favourite piece is Baraka Theme, its broad, sonorous notes create a vast scope that perfectly accompanies the boundless panoramas.

There are so many moments I could talk about, I could throw effusive adjectives at almost every frame, however I feel mere words can’t do it justice. Baraka is a purely cinematic experience that’s somewhat futile to describe.

However, one memorable sequence I will mention is the factory processing of chicks that’s interspersed with the frenetic pace of Tokyo railway commuters; it is fascinating and ultimately quite unpleasant as the birds’ destiny in battery cages is revealed after having their beaks burnt. The camera offers insights into an array of factories, showcasing their subjects’ perfectly rehearsed skills in computer hardware assembly, textiles and poultry.

It is a film that demands to be shown on good equipment, a film that serves as a benchmark for one’s TV or projector. Apparently, it was the first film to receive an 8K transfer, what an awesome experience that must be, most likely better than real life!

When Baraka sadly finishes, you eventually move your eyes away from the screen for the first time in 97 minutes and realise that you’ve been dead still the whole time as you check your watch, surprised to see that many hours haven’t passed. It is a triumph that the moving image alone can achieve such engrossment.

86%