Silent Running 4K

by Glenn Erickson Nov 15, 2022

Newly remastered in 4K! Bruce Dern’s (literally) tree-hugging forest ranger Freeman Lowell commits space piracy to save the trees, dude, and becomes lost in space with only Huey, Dewey and Louie for companionship. The only soul back on Earth who seems to care is Joan Baez. Douglas Trumbull’s technically-accomplished first feature film does 2001 on a tiny budget, and creates something original, if a bit mushy — the bittersweet ending depresses more than it uplifts.

Silent Running
4K Ultra HD
Arrow Video
1972 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 90 min. / Street Date December 13, 2022 / Available from / 49.95
Starring: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint, Mark Persons, Steven Brown, Cheryl Sparks, Larry Whisenhunt.
Cinematography: Charles F. Wheeler
Film Editor: Aaron Stell
Original Music: Peter Schickiele
Special Photographic Effects: John Dykstra, Douglas Trumbull, Richard Yuricich
Written by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Steven Bochco
Produced by Michael Gruskoff, Marty Hornstein
Directed by
Douglas Trumbull

Arrow has been on a two-year roll, upgrading their elaborate Blu-ray special editions to the newer 4K Ultra HD format. Their re-dos of Universal titles are the ones that stand out, especially their dazzling upgrade of David Lynch’s Dune. Most of this essay is an re-written repeat of an older review.

Universal’s Silent Running is a modestly budgeted sci-fi thriller that quite brilliantly overcomes a tall stack of technical challenges. Its talented special effects experts came from 2001 and were central to the visual effects bonanza brought on five years later by Star Wars and Close Encounters. The writing credits include two names soon to become industry notables, but not with anything like this environmental space opera.

“They paved Paradise, put up an orbiting greenhouse, La la la.”

In the near future Earth’s plant life has died out due to human mismanagement. A preservation workaround is a fleet of spaceships in a distant orbit, with caretakers that tend to living flora specimens in domed greenhouse pods. The forest ranger on the ship Valley Forge is Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), an earnest, dedicated and uncomplicated soul who believes in the spirit of the Smokey the Bear song. Lowell’s fellow astronauts don’t share his sense of duty. They shun him as an oddball and ignore his pleas to stop racing their electric work cars through his gardens.


When orders come through that the entire reforestation program is to be abandoned, Lowell flips out. When his colleagues begin jettisoning and destroying the precious domes, he strikes back, murderously. Only one dome is saved. Lowell steers his ship into a different orbit to hide his crime and lies to Mission Control. Now alone and with ‘rescue’ months away, Lowell passes the time in isolation by developing an eccentric relationship with his three robot gardeners, which he dubs Huey, Dewey and Louie. Mission Control tells him that his new orbit will take what’s left of the Valley Forge through the rings of Saturn — and he’s not expected to survive.

The early ’70s saw a surge in ecologically- themed sci-fi. No Blade of Grass, Soylent Green and Z.P.G. predicted apocalyptic chaos via viral plagues, pollution-related devastation or simple over-population. Silent Running opts for a less drastic, if bittersweet, approach, a sci-fi extrapolation of a popular Joni Mitchell song.

Having just completed the truly impressive visuals for Universal’s The Andromeda Strain, Douglas Trumbull leveraged his good name as a gee-whiz genius effects wizard to direct, getting a piece of the same Universal ‘let the kids do their thing’ program that would produce American Grafitti. His technically resourceful production conjures impressive outer space scenes for relative pennies on the dollar. John Dykstra and Richard Yuricich worked out electronic / mechanical effects that would later be refined into ‘motion control,’ a buzzword heard endlessly after Star Wars. A decommissioned aircraft carrier stands in for the interior of the spaceship Valley Forge. Ingenious front projection enhances the illusion of the garden dome interiors, avoiding gigantic set construction.

Trumbull & Co. worked out a unique alternative to the traditional science fiction robot. Little Huey, Dewey and Louie are played by young bi-lateral amputees skilled in walking on their hands. The lightweight ‘robot’ shells built around their bodies were designed to hide hints of human physiognomy. A big success, the robots have been noted as the precursors to Star Wars’ R2-D2 robot, which frankly is less impressive.


The best thing about Silent Running is still Bruce Dern, whose characteristically fearless performance keeps the episodic story in motion. Dern isn’t afraid to tap some of the out-there mannerisms of the psychos he often played. Freeman Lowell is essentially a one-man Greenpeace movement, an activist pushed to violence to defend his principles. As Freeman is the only thing preventing the total extinction of plant life, we are naturally on his side. But he’s also a terrorist outlaw, like the misguided anti-nuke boffin Professor Willingdon.

The story’s emotional idealism is just fine, as are the Schickele & Lampert songs voiced by Joan Baez. But we wonder why the preservation domes need to be parked somewhere out in space, instead of on Earth somewhere. The only Earthbound scenes are dream visions of a redwood forest, so we have no idea what’s going on back home. Society doesn’t seem to have entirely broken down, but we don’t know the full extent of the environmental collapse. Has all the vegetation died? Without plants, how can life on Earth survive at all? What do all the herbivores eat? Is humanity living on mushrooms?  The only previous Sci-fi movie I know of to depict an orbiting greenhouse is the Soviet Nebo Zoyvot from 1959.

The little ‘innocent’ robots tending the shrubbery and shuttling along the exterior of the spaceship make for some unique visuals. But the attempt to sentimentalize them is a little thin, especially when one of them uses a watering can, like a robotic Johnny Appleseed. Silent Running can’t avoid the fact that most ecological stories are defeatist downers. We can easily imagine George Lucas looking at Silent Running and deciding that audiences want space opera, not an ecological fable. We’re all for the motto ‘Save the asparagus,’ but it’s difficult to translate into the disaster format of filmed science fiction.

Silent Running’s message-laden fantasy doesn’t totally connect with the audience. We know that Freeman Lowell can’t win — he has ‘Noble Loser’ tattooed on his forehead. But our patience is strained when he can’t figure out why his plants aren’t flourishing, even though he’s taken them millions of miles further away from the life-giving sun. Simple logic makes Lowell’s quest come off as a fool’s errand. If the plants are doomed anyway, why kill the other astronauts? Sorry, tree-huggers, but Freeman Lowell’s actions are indefensible.


These discordant elements put a damper on the film’s glorious ‘save the Earth’ finale, despite the inspiring music and the vision of the jewel-like surviving dome. But realistic space hardware and fairy-tale magic are not particularly compatible. Huey will eventually run out of batteries, the plant food got left behind in the hangar, and those sun lamps won’t last forever. If HAL-9000 were on board the Valley Forge he’d ask for a duty transfer.

The story of another cute robot cleaning up after humanity’s neglectful mismanagement eventually became an animated hit by Pixar: WALL•E.

Almost half a century later, Silent Running now reminds us of our deplorable state of ecological progress. Despots and opportunists persist in calling climate change a hoax. A scary 60 Minutes report shows the efforts of an arctic seed bank to store varieties of grain seed that might become extinct. (More alarming seed bank news. . . )

None of this is meant to give Douglas Trumbull’s movie a bad rap . . . Silent Running’s ‘save the plants’ message is a perfectly good one to spread around in any form.



Arrow Video’s 4K Ultra HD of Silent Running is a handsome encoding of this colorful, technically-advanced space drama. I saw the movie projected at Universal when new, and remember well how it looked under nigh-perfect theatrical conditions.

As we explained up top, Arrow has lately been bumping previous Blu-ray special editions up to 4K Ultra HD, re-issuing them with almost the same packaging and extras, as with the example given, Dune. Those previous special edition discs had already been re-mastered in 4K, leading us to believe that the eventual 4K releases simply authored the same restorations without the down-convert to straight Blu-ray HD.

The packaging instead announces first-off that for Silent Running Arrow has instead performed a brand-new 4K restoration. We were eager to compare, as the 2020 Blu-ray had looked very good. Let it be said that we don’t consider this release to be a marketing double-dip. Our definition of a double-dip is the same video in the same format, maybe with some new extras.

Note that this 4K Ultra HD release includes no Blu-ray copy of the film. It’s the one 4K disc.

Compared on a 65″ LG, I’d have to say that, yes, the image is visibly better — but in a degree that a video tech-phile might appreciate, not an average viewer. On an expensive projector or one of those 10,000 monitors, I would guarantee the improvement would be much more pronounced. So act accordingly. When home video segues into the realm of ‘home theater,’ economic considerations usually aren’t an issue. If you just need to see the movie, I’m sure an $8 used DVD can be found online.

If anything, the 4K home format shows the limitation of the original film elements. We’re happy that most shots don’t become excessively grainy, especially the clever front-projection setups. There are many front-projection shots with built-in camera moves, that were accomplished with tricks I can’t quite grasp: I saw Trumbull’s 70mm front projection systems in work on Close Encounters. When the camera craned upward in that show, the front projections didn’t.

I only noticed the image being affected in a few shots in the greehouse gardens, where the bright green grass ‘crawled’ in some shots but not in others. Was some original effect cause a change, or did video processing encode those shots differently?  It’s hardly worth mentioning, as the image overall really pops.

We still notice the limitations of the front projection scenes. The self-matting around foliage in the domes is perfect — we believe there’s a giant geodesic dome structure over Freeman’s head. But the projected backgrounds in the space scenes are still milky, just as they were in projected 35mm back in 1972. When Saturn looms in the background, it doesn’t seem quite bright enough.

File that observation under ‘annoying quibble.’ Mr. Trumbull and company don’t skimp on effects angles, many of them terrific slow-motion miniature shots, as when the mechanisms launching the domes fire up. Richard Foy is credited as the movie’s titles consultant, and we wonder if he was responsible for the beautiful macro cinematography of a snail, etc, crawling in Freeman’s gardens for the main titles.


The wealth of disc extras appear to be identical to those on the earlier Blu-ray special edition — older video items from its first DVD release, and some newer pieces from 2020. The older featurettes offer plenty of input from the late Douglas Trumbull, and we still like Bruce Dern’s thoughtful interview. The faded print of a 1972 promotional ‘making of’ show (50 minutes) reveals most of the movie’s technical secrets. The newer extras include a piece on the music by Peter Schickele, aka ‘PDQ Bach.’ Arrow’s handsome 31-page insert booklet confirms the new remastering effort — a new 4K scan was timed to match the older 2K finish approved by Douglas Trumbull.

Star Wars brought on the industry policy of crediting nearly every below-the-line person that worked on a movie; before then it was assumed that only department heads got credit. That was part of the poison of the old Guilds — you could become a member by showing some outstanding special talent, by apprenticing with an established artisan, or because you were the son (not the daughter) of a Guild member. Silent Running’s credits list a number of ‘special designs’ people, some of them engineers and design school students brought in by Douglas Trumbull. I don’t know which if any were directly responsible for the miniatures, as technically only a Guild propmaker could receive specialized credit.

While serving as a Glorified Gopher on Close Encounters I also spent a couple of months at Trumbull’s ‘Future General’ headquarters, projecting the first experimental Showscan film. Behind the projection room was a loft that Trumbull’s father Don encouraged me to poke around in — it held some handsome presentation art for an abandoned Damnation Alley project, and also the deconstructed miniatures from Silent Running. I remember seeing a case of prop Atom Bombs. The miniature domes were there, each about a yard in diameter. Don Trumbull slipped me a ‘Valley Forge’ shoulder patch as a keepsake.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Silent Running
4K Ultra HD rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent + Isolated Music and Effects Track
Audio commentary by Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw,
Audio Commentary by Douglas Trumbull and Bruce Dern
The Making of Silent Running (50 minutes, 1972); featurette No Turning Back on the Peter Schickele (PDQ Bach) music score, by Jeff Borland
First Run, a visual examination of the development of the film’s screenplay by Jon Spira
Behind the Scenes gallery.
Featurettes Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull, Douglas Trumbull: Then and Now, A Conversation with Bruce Dern
Illustrated 31-page color insert booklet with essays by Barry Forshaw and Peter Tonguette.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD disc in Keep case
November 13, 2022

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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What?? No comments at ALL??? Almost TWO YEARS?? I guess no one every reads these bits of useless journalism

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