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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Joe (2013)

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Nicolas Cage disappears into his role as the titular Joe in a film that’s thematically rather familiar but also a surprisingly realist piece of cinema.

The film follows the principal characters Joe (Nicolas Cage) and Gary (Tye Sheridan). Gary is the only member of his degenerate family who is able to work and earn a living; he has been forced to become a responsible person by his vile, repulsive father Wade (Gary Poulter), a man who has abused his body so much and for so long that he can only speak in slurred, incoherent ramblings. I recently compiled a list of the 10 most hateful characters of cinema; I think Wade could quite easily be placed in it.

Joe is a recidivist who is haunted by his criminal history and continues to struggle with controlling his anger, it seems the only way he can stay out of trouble is by absorbing himself in his small landscaping company.

Joe leads a group of black workers, they clear wooded areas with these rather strange axes that waywardly squirt poison everywhere. Joe and Gary are brought together when the boy implores him to employ both himself and his father. Joe obliges and Gary proves to be a good worker, although the agreement is soon thwarted by his obnoxious father who is too polluted, weak and lazy to contribute to the team.

The cast of Joe’s workers and indeed the whole film is populated with actors who were seemingly taken from the street, their performances are completely natural and their language raw, colloquial and as a result sometimes completely incomprehensible! A few times I felt like an American watching Trainspotting, particularly during a row between the moronic Wade and a black worker, whose ebonics is the strongest I’ve ever heard.

Joe is a tough watch, there are characters that represent the very lowest form of human life, there’s seldom a room in the film that isn’t a filthy, cluttered mess. I didn’t expect it to be such a realist piece of cinema, its depiction of blue collar work and young Gary’s first foray into it is sure to resonate with anyone who’s had similar experiences, myself included.

Nicolas Cage doesn’t stick out at all, he effortlessly blends in with the surrounding cast of largely unknown actors. Like Leaving Las Vegas, Joe is an example of Cage moderating his idiosyncratic acting, which I like incidentally, and showcasing just how good he is.

Clear correlations can be made with Mud, a similarly themed film about a benevolent renegade forming a bond with Tye Sheridan’s conflicted teenage boy. Joe is the superior of the pair, although Mud boasted good performances from its leads, it was melodramatic and overrated. Tye Sheridan’s character Ellis in Mud, who is given far too much screen time, thought about love and human relationships in ways that 14-year-old boys just don’t – I didn’t believe in him. He also had a habit of vehemently punching people in the face that belied his prepubescent little frame. Joe’s Gary is a much better character, a measured boy who simply wants to make a living and prove to the men in his life that he’s no kid.

Mud lacked Joe’s gritty nastiness, it had treacly melodrama instead of stark reality. What they do share is the running theme of redemption, and in the case of Joe, I found its conclusion rather familiar and subsequently bathetic. Despite this, Joe succeeds in absorbing you in its masculine world and Nicolas Cage defies any naysayers by completely disappearing into his role as the titular rogue.

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