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.

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About Schmidt (2002)

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A poignant film about the definition of success.

About Schmidt follows Warren R. Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a veteran actuary of the Woodmen of the World insurance company in Omaha, Nebraska. Schmidt is a polite, measured man surrounded by people who are commonly quite the opposite.

There are flashes of his broad, mischievous smile and roguish charm, but Nicholson reels in his iconic charisma, he effortlessly becomes the respectable, disconcerted Middle American and is as magnetic and watchable as usual.

The film begins in a desolate office as Schmidt stares at a clock that adorns a bare, grey wall as the final minute of his interminable career ticks by. He then enters something of a catatonic state, his blank expression displaying ambiguous yet decidedly dissatisfied emotions. He attends his retirement dinner, witnessing overlong, self-indulgent speeches from colleagues both old and new. He also drops by his old office to speak with his replacement who was so very charming at the dinner yet so indifferent afterwards. Throughout these scenes Schmidt retains his composure, reserving any judgement on his rapidly changing life.

As he sits at home unsure what to do with himself, he watches an advert appealing for the viewer to sponsor an African child. He does so, and is soon funding and corresponding with a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu; it is his first letter to Ndugu that provides the first big laugh in the film. As he puts pen to paper, Schmidt boils over and rants about his cocky upstart of a replacement, his daughter’s fiancée, his failure to achieve ‘semi-importance’, his wife’s annoying habits and his somewhat emasculating subservience to her.

Soon after this letter, his wife passes away. Schmidt then begins to reflect on every aspect of his life, even wondering if his wife was the soul mate she was supposed to be.

The film is about the nature of success. Schmidt’s definition of success is leaving an impression during one’s existence, making a difference. He doesn’t aspire to be Henry Ford or Walt Disney, he draws the line far below that level of success, however he wants to be ‘semi-important’ at least.

What exactly does Schmidt mean by ‘semi-important’? By striving for something that he hasn’t precisely defined he has set himself up for disappointment. The only way in which most people make a profound difference is by continuing their lineage, creating new people and a myriad of new experiences – I think that is entirely honourable. The main objective isn’t to shake the system up but to enjoy yourself. 

Personally, I think Schmidt has been a success; his hard graft will provide for generations to come, as long as his self-absorbed, high maintenance daughter isn’t foolish. His life’s greatest flaw was his wife, he had no connection with her, they were on very different wavelengths. He could have divorced her, but that would have most likely had negative effects on his daughter; he arguably did the righteous, selfless thing by sticking with her.

Some feel the ending is bathetic, which is understandable. I thought Schmidt was being too hard on himself, but it seems he filled a very personal void in the film’s final moments, so that has to be a good thing.

I have written about these characters as if I know them, which is testament to the existential resonance of About Schmidt. 

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