The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Silent Running

Learn how this 1972 film impacted Star Wars in technique, and gave one key A New Hope crew member his start.

Douglas Trumbull is a special effects legend and he had a part in influencing Star Wars with two other films he worked on, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner. His work in creating ships and models as well as doing composite effects advanced the field of special effects to a place where Star Wars was possible.

In Trumbull’s 1972 directorial debut, Silent Running, Earth had undergone an environmental catastrophe and became unable to support its own plant life. The United States sent the USS Valley Forge and a number of other ships into space with geodesic bio-domes where botanists like Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) were tasked with keeping the plant and animal life alive until Earth is safe enough for it to be transplanted back. When the government and the corporation that owns the ship decides the project is too expensive, they order the astronauts aboard to destroy the greenhouses and come home.

Obviously, this doesn’t sit well with the botanist. He takes this opportunity to murder his astronaut colleagues and takes the forests into deep space on his own with no companionship but a trio of robots.

Star Wars: A New Hope - droids

It’s the robots of Silent Running specifically that influenced Star Wars the most. Norman Reynolds, the art director for A New Hope, was asked in an interview for Star Wars Insider about what movies George Lucas had him watch for inspiration. “I remember watching Silent Running for the robots,” he said, before elaborating on other movies which we’ll explore in future columns.

McQuarrie

The robots in Silent Running don’t look anything like Artoo and Threepio, which are much more like the original Ralph McQuarrie designs. But, as far as Artoo is concerned, some of their functionality is similar. They have retractable arms like Artoo does, welding and manipulating computers and maintenance hatches. One even has a cutting tool much like the one Artoo uses on Endor to free the Rebels from the Ewok trap. They also speak in small beeps and whistles, though their language is nowhere near as understandable or adorable as Artoo.

All of the droids Silent Running look as though they’ve been cobbled together from parts easily found in a workshop, and this might have been one of the largest influences on the droids of Star Wars. If you look at the droids the Jawas tried selling Uncle Owen, they definitely had that “lived in” feel. The droid that might resemble the Silent Running robots most, though, would be the Gonk droids. They have similarly fashioned legs and walk exactly the same way.

Silent Running is also important to Star Wars for another key member of the crew: John Dykstra. In order to keep costs on Silent Running down, Trumbull hired inexperienced college students to build models and work on the special effects, and one of those students was Dykstra. Dykstra came to work at Industrial Light & Magic to develop the first computer-controlled motion capture camera system that led to many of the best effects in Star Wars. He went on to win two Oscars for his groundbreaking work to bring A New Hope to life.

Silent Running is a fascinating film for many more reasons than these, though. First, it was produced for the same reasons and by the same studio as George Lucas’ American Graffiti. After the success of 1969’s Easy Rider, Universal Studios wasn’t quite sure how to reach a young audience, but knew they could make money. To that end, they financed five films by young filmmakers for less than a million dollars, hoping at least one of them would be successful. One was Silent Running, another American Graffiti.

Secondly, it influenced a number of other great films and series other than Star Wars. Andrew Stanton cites it as an inspiration for Wall-E, Joel Hodgson gives it some credit for Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the creators of Red Dwarf looked to it for inspiration as well. It also found ways to influence Battlestar Galactica, the ships from this film found their way into the original version of that television series.

Bruce Dern carries the film with a quiet intensity that is fun to watch. He’s not interested in humanity, merely the preservation of the forest, but once he’s spent too much time alone with no one but the robots, he realizes that maybe he couldn’t live without them either. It’s rated PG and would be suitable for any age willing to sit through a more psychological science-fiction film rather than an action-oriented one.

Availability: Silent Running is widely available on Blu-ray and DVD. It can be streamed for a modest rental fee on most streaming video services.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of SithYou can also follow him on Twitter.

TAGS: ,