Silent Running (Blu-ray 4K) [Blu-ray 4K]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (6th January 2023).
The Film

Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1972)

The directorial debut of special effects genius Douglas Trumbull, Silent Running is a product of that very specific era of American filmmaking in which the Hollywood studios, attempting to recapture the success amongst youth audiences of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider in 1969, gave filmmakers near-carte blanche to make all sorts of offbeat projects if they felt they might tap into the youth market. Arrow Video have now released Silent Running on both Blu-ray and 4k UHD formats.

Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is a member of a four-man crew piloting the spacecraft USS Valley Forge close to the rings of Saturn. The Valley Forge is carrying a series of domes containing what remains of the Earth’s forests, which Lowell hopes will be used to re-establish the forests on Earth one day.

Lowell is mocked by the other crew members, who are more interested in larking about like teenagers than tending to the animals and plants in the domes. When the Valley Forge is ordered to jettison the forest domes – to destroy them with nuclear blasts – and return to Earth, Lowell rebels. He kills his crewmates and pilots the ship through and past Saturn’s rings, breaking contact with Earth.

He reprogrammes three cute robot drones, which he renames Huey, Dewey, and Louie. With them, he takes care of the remaining forest dome. However, a series of mishaps leads to disaster, and two of the drones are either lost or irreparably damaged. Left alone with the remaining drone, Lowell finds himself once again contacted by the authorities on Earth, who demand that the Valley Forge be redirected towards Earth.

Silent Running
was based on a treatment by Trumbull, which was worked into a feature script by Michael Cimino and Deric Washburn (who would later collaborate on the script for Cimino’s The Deer Hunter); this script was revised by Washburn, Cimino, and Steven Bochco. The film was at least partially greenlit owing to the commercial success of Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971), for which Trumbull had provided some memorable special effects work.

Prior to The Andromeda Strain, Trumbull’s special effects had also underpinned Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); Trumbull’s work in this field would go on to anchor numerous later Hollywood pictures (notably, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner) and even theme park rides (Trumbull designed Universal’s “Back to the Future” ride). Trumbull experimented in pushing cinema technology into new arenas, particularly in the arena of immersion: Trumbull developed the 70mm/60fps “Showscan” format, most often used in simulator rides, and also helped develop and popularise IMAX technology. The only other feature film that Trumbull would direct was Brainstorm in 1983, which explored themes of media immersion and virtual reality in a manner that anticipated the fascination with virtual reality in the 1990s and 2000s – not to mention later films such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999).

With this institutional context in mind, the other major framework in which Silent Running is best understood is the trend within science-fiction of the 1960s and 1970s to explore themes of ecological crisis: this was something present in a notable amount of SF literature of the era (for example, in the work of Ursula Le Guin, the Strugatskys, and Harry Harrison). Here, in Silent Running, this theme is explored through Lowell’s connection to the domed forests that are being carried through space by the Valley Forge: highlighting this from the opening frames of the movie, the floating forests’ flora and fauna are captured in loving, fetishistic detail in the titles sequence. This titles sequence employs macro photography of leaves and animals, accompanied on the audio track by Joan Baez’s recording of “Rejoice in the Sun.” As the opening titles come to an end, we are presented with a scene of Lowell in the forest, speaking gently to a small rabbit; the camera pulls back to reveal that Lowell (and the forest) are in fact floating through space.

Adding depth to the film’s exploration of this theme is dialogue that suggests human civilisation has, in many ways other than through its destruction of Earth’s forests, achieved a utopia: “There’s hardly any more disease, there’s no more poverty, everybody has a job,” one of Lowell’s crewmates reminds him. “You know what else there is no more of, my friend?” Lowell responds, “There’s no more beauty, and there’s no more imagination, and there are no frontiers left to conquer.” One person’s utopia, it seems, is from another perspective utterly dystopic. What is the hidden cost of achieving a utopia? Where does idealism lead us? In conquering poverty and disease, the film implies that humanity has both destroyed nature and stripped any sense of mystery and magic from life. Revisiting the picture in the current era, in which we are very cognisant of issues surrounding climate change and the environmental cost of industrialisation and economic “progress,” it is readily apparent that Silent Running raises questions that seem perennially relevant.

Within the film, Lowell’s position is essentially an existential one: he has committed to a specific course of action (nurturing and protecting the forests) and, when the time comes, posits an existential “no” against the authorities when they demand that the forests be destroyed and the ships return to Earth for other, presumably more economically profitable, uses. Lowell’s existential choice is so firmly made that he almost unhesitantly accepts the need to commit murder – killing his crewmates – in order to pursue his defence of the forests. He does this, but in his need for companionship he replaces his crewmates (with whom, in all fairness, he never fully connected) with the three robotic drones, who he renames Huey, Dewey, and Louie (after the nephews of Scrooge McDuck). Lowell imposes human characteristics on these drones, reprogramming them and trying to teach them poker; touchingly, the little robots display quiet moments of humanity, one of them gently tapping another – in order to draw its attention – as Lowell approaches, for example. Elsewhere, the drones are depicted as childlike through the simple placement of a child’s watering can (bedecked with a cute cartoon design) alongside both the drones and Lowell. (The near-heartbreaking “deaths” of two of the robots will surely linger in the memories of anyone who watched Silent Running as a child.)

Lowell’s connection to these robots exceeds his relationships with his human crewmates, who to Lowell’s disgust were willing to accept the synthetic food proffered by the ship’s systems over the fruit and vegetables Lowell has grown in the domes. (When one of the other crew members mocks Lowell’s preference for organic food, he tells them that a cantaloupe is “Earth’s greatest gift,” and insists his preference is for food that he has grown himself rather than the “dried, synthetic crap” that the others eat.)

The film offers a profoundly realised world – not just in terms of its superb visual effects, but also in terms of its exploration of its major themes. In an era torn by existential choices (for or against the war in Vietnam, for example), the character of Lowell represents the dilemma of the conscience: what does it mean to be conscientious, the film seems to ask us, and to be marked as “different” owing to one’s conscience (and the existential decisions that follow on from this)? Perhaps it is for this reason that Silent Running lingers in the memories of those who encounter it during their youth – in that formative stage where idealism runs rampant and one’s conscience is developing (and one’s confidence in adhering to that conscience in the face of either peer pressure or authoritarianism).


Arrow’s new 4k UHD release of Silent Running contains a superb presentation of the feature. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and the 2160p image utilises the 1HEVC codec. The presentation is HDR10 compatible.

The film runs for 89:31 mins. This is a 2k restoration from the original negative, approved by the film’s director, Douglas Trumbull. The 35mm colour photography is captured excellently in this presentation. The image is incredibly detailed, with some superb fine detail. There are of course a significant number of scenes that feature optical effects, and which therefore display slightly less definition (owing to the optical printing processes), but this never becomes a problem – and, having seen both this 4k UHD presentation and Arrow’s concomitant 1080p Blu-ray presentation, the boost in detail between 1080p HD and 4k UHD is more than evident on a good monitor. Contrast levels are equally pleasing, with a superb balance between light and dark elements within the image. Black levels are deep and satisfyingly velvety, with defined gradation from the toe to the middle of the exposure; highlights are equally balanced and even. Colours are consistent and naturalistic. The encode to disc is impressive, with no digital artifacts present; and the presentation retains the structure of 35mm film. In all, this is a superb, filmlike presentation of Silent Running that really benefits from the uptick (in terms of the 4k format) in definition, colour, and depth.

NB. Screengrabs accompanying this review are taken from Arrow Video’s new 1080p Blu-ray presentation, not the 4k UHD version.


Audio is presented via a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track. This is deep and rich, showcasing the film’s superb score and subtle sound design. Dialogue is always clear and easy to hear. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are provided; and these are easy to read and accurate in transcribing the dialogue.


The disc includes the following contextual material:
- An audio commentary by critics Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw. In this newly recorded commentary, Forshaw and Newman discuss Silent Running. They discuss the film’s place within the pantheons of US SF cinema, and particularly within the “eco-awareness” strand within science-fiction. Newman suggests the picture was made in an era when SF was “seen as a sort of counter-culture-friendly genre,” and the pair consider the film’s ecological subtext. Newman argues that the film particularly appeals to children and younger viewers, though wasn’t commercially successful on its original release. Silent Running is contextualised within the post-Easy Rider push by studios to make films that appealed to younger audiences.

- An audio commentary by director Douglas Trumbull and actor Bruce Dern. This is an older commentary track, recorded in 2000, that has appeared on the film’s various previously available DVD and Blu-ray releases. Trumbull and Dern offer vivid reflection on the film’s production, Trumbull’s attention to technical detail extending to discussion of the types of lenses used during production. The pair talk about how the film was produced in the wake of the success of Easy Rider. It’s a solid commentary, Trumbull and Dern offering a warm back-and-forth within their discussion.

- An isolated effects and music track. This is presented in LPCM 2.0 stereo.

- ‘No Turning Back’ (13:53). Jeff Bond, who has written quite widely on the topic of film music, discusses the score for Silent Running in an interview recorded for Arrow in 2020. Bond considers Peter Schickele’s music for the picture, and his collaboration with Joan Baez – which began with the three Baez albums Schickele orchestrated and arranged during the 1960s (Noel, Joan, and Baptism). Bond argues that Schickele’s score helps to reinforce Dern’s character’s relationship with the silent robots and the forest, making “a huge impact on the picture.” Bond argues that much of the film’s music is “intimate and small,” and discusses some of the specific cues used in the film.

- ‘First Run’ (14:02). In this video essay narrated by Jon Spira, Spira considers the development of Silent Running’s script and how the project evolved during pre-production. Spira references Michael Cimino and Deric Washburn’s early script for the picture, drawing connections between some of the themes of the film and the ideas in Cimino/Washburn’s script for Cimino’s later picture The Deer Hunter. Passages from the script are read with sketched panels as accompaniment. Interestingly, this early script opens with the deaths of Lowell’s shipmates.

A section of the menu labelled as Archival Special Features contains the following:
- ‘The Making of Silent Running’ (49:17). This is a lengthy look at the genesis and making of Silent Running, made during the production of the film, with a heavy focus on how some of the effects were achieved. It features interviews with the key cast and crew. This documentary will be familiar to the film’s fans, as it has long been available on the film’s home video releases.

- Silent Running by Director Douglas Trumbull’ (30:09). This is a lengthy interview with Trumbull, who talks about how Silent Running evolved from a treatment that he wrote, which was developed into a feature script with the involvement of Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, and Steven Bochco. Trumbull “merged” these various drafts together into the shooting script for the film. This, again, has appeared on the film’s previous DVD/Blu-ray releases.

- ‘Douglas Trumbull: Then and Now’ (4:51). Trumbull talks about the position of Silent Running within his career, and how many of his subsequent filmmaking projects failed to come to fruition, leading Trumbull to becoming involved in the development of new filmmaking and exhibition technologies. Trumbull suggested that “a lot of money was being spent on the content” of films, but the technology was remaining static.

- ‘A Conversation with Bruce Dern’ (10:57). Dern talks about how he came to be cast in Silent Running. He discusses working with Trumbull, and how Trumbull helped Dern to comprehend the manner in which the visual effects would be integrated with his performance. (Silent Running was the first time Dern had worked on such an effects-heavy picture.)

- Theatrical Trailer (2:57).

- Behind-the-Scenes Gallery


Silent Running is an excellent film, and one with a strong cult following. Its themes still feel rich and relevant: beneath the ecological message is an arguably more profound exploration of human conscience and the existential decisions one makes. The film’s examination of its future setting is rounded; the picture highlights how what appears to be a utopia is, at least when viewed from an alternative perspective, actually a nightmare scenario. This aspect of the film feels increasingly relevant, in an era dominated by increasingly polarised and intensely dogmatic “voices” within the public sphere.

Arrow Video’s new 4k UHD release of Silent Running is superb. The new presentation is impressive, improving on the film’s previous HD releases (which, to be fair, weren’t truly dissatisfying). The main feature is accompanied by an excellent array of contextual material, some superb new extra features complementing the bonus material replicated from the film’s previous DVD and Blu-ray releases. Fans of the film will find this release from Arrow to be an essential purchase.



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