Release Date(s)1972 (December 13, 2022)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
A favorite of a generation of fans who saw it when they were young, Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running didn’t fare well when it was released in 1972 due to a lack of publicity. Trumbull had famously worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey and wanted to make a science fiction film of his own utilizing the same level of great special effects, but he also brought in Michael Cimino and Steven Bochco to help him write something more accessible than abstract.
Sometime in the future, Earth has become uninhabitable, meaning that plants and animals can no longer survive there. The solution: preserve what’s left by putting it on a spaceship and nurturing it over an extended period of time. Chosen to oversee this is Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), an ecologist hellbent on the belief that humans have lost their way and that appreciating nature is the most valuable thing left. His three crewmen, Keenan (Cliff Potts), Barker (Ron Rifkin), and Wolf (Jesse Vint), do not share in his views and see plant life as unnecessary. One day Earth contacts the crew and, without warning, orders them to destroy the domes housing the vegetation and come home. Unwilling to go along with this, Lowell sabotages and kills his crewmen, left alone to float in space with his three service robots and avoid rescue.
While the effects are to certainly be praised, more important is the performance by Bruce Dern, who essentially turns in a one-man show. The empathy for his character, regardless of his actions, is off the charts because of the pathos he brings to it. As such, the film explores themes of morality and ecological disaster, but does so masterfully. It also utilizes a score provided by Peter Schickele with songs performed by Joan Baez, both of which are highly unusual for a science fiction film from this era. Films like Moon would build upon and modernize its ideals, but Silent Running stands today as unique science fiction—made at a time when studios were more willing to gamble on filmmakers with new ideas and fresh approaches.
Silent Running was shot by director of photography Charles F. Wheeler on 35 mm film using Arriflex cameras and spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Arrow Video returns to the film, having previously released it on Blu-ray, bringing it to 4K Ultra HD with a new 4K restoration of the original camera negative, graded for high dynamic range (HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are available) and using Douglas Trumbull’s grade for the previous Blu-ray as reference. The prior presentation in standard high definition was not to be topped, but on 4K Ultra HD, it soars. Grain tends to be on the heavy side, in some shots more than others, but it resolves well enough. The new HDR grades allow the finer nuances of the various sections of the ship and the vegetation to come through much more, deepening the detail in the color palette and boosting black levels with superior contrast. It’s also a clean and stable presentation. Opticals are soft, but detail is very much enhanced for this crisp, organic picture.
The audio is included in English mono DTS-HD Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH (same as the Blu-ray). The film was also released in 70 mm with 6 track audio, but that doesn’t appear to have been utilized here. The mono track handles the various elements admirably, including the score and music selection. Dialogue is prioritized well, even Bruce Dern’s quiet murmurings, though sound effects don’t always have the level of heft that they should. It’s a satisfactory mix without any leftover instances of hiss, crackle, dropouts, or distortion to speak of.
Silent Running on 4K Ultra HD sits in a black amaray case with a reversible insert featuring artwork by Arik Roper on one side and the original theatrical poster artwork on the other. Also included is a 32-page booklet containing cast and crew information, the essays Silent Running: Douglas Trumbull’s Visions of Nature by Barry Forshaw, Silent Running: Bruce Dern’s Star Turn Among the Stars by Peter Tonguette, restoration information, and production credits. Everything is housed in a slipcover featuring the same Arik Roper artwork. The following extras are included, all in HD:
- Audio Commentary by Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw
- Audio Commentary by Douglas Trumbull and Bruce Dern
- Isolated Music and Effects Track
- No Turning Back (HD – 13:53)
- First Run: The Evolution of Silent Running’s Screenplay (HD – 14:02)
- The Making of Silent Running (Upscaled SD – 49:17)
- Silent Running by Director Douglas Trumbull (Upscaled HD – 30:09)
- Douglas Trumbull: Then and Now (Upscaled HD – 4:52)
- Silent Running: A Discussion with Bruce Dern “Lowell Freeman” (Upscaled HD – 10:57)
- Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled SD – 2:58)
- Behind-the-Scenes Gallery (HD – 632 in all)
In the audio commentary, authors and film historians Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw discuss the reasons why the film didn’t do well at the box office, the casting of Bruce Dern, the film’s similarities to and differences from science fiction stories of the era, the use of sound and music in the film, its ecological message, the impact of Star Wars on science fiction, people with disabilities being cast in films, and Douglas Trumbull’s attention to technology, among other subjects. The older audio commentary with Trumbull and Bruce Dern was recorded in 2000 and features the two men in discussion about the making of the film, commenting upon it as they watch it together—though Trumbull does most of the talking. The isolated music and effects track is presented in 2.0 LPCM. No Turning Back features an audio interview with music historian Jeff Bond speaking about the film’s music and song selection. First Run is a video essay by writer and filmmaker Jon Spira about the evolution of the film’s screenplay using illustrations and voice actors. The Making of Silent Running is a vintage 1972 documentary made concurrently with the film’s production. Silent Running by Director Douglas Trumbull and Douglas Trumbull: Then and Now features an interview with the director about the film in retrospect. In A Discussion with Bruce Dern, the actor talks about his career, how he got the main role, working with Douglas Trumbull, and his retrospective feelings on the film. The Behind-the-Scenes Gallery contains a whopping 632 full color and black white production stills. All that’s missing is the German Super 8 version of the film found on the Koch Media Region B Blu-ray release, and a Trailers from Hell commentary featuring Edgar Wright.
Arrow Video ups the ante once again, giving us a presentation of Silent Running that’s been given careful attention. With a quality 4K transfer and extras, it’s definitely the kind of treatment that a film of this caliber deserves. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons