In 1968, visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull (The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) contributed to the ground-breaking special photographic effects of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Four years later, he stamped his own indelible mark on the science fiction genre with his mesmerising directorial debut – Silent Running.
In the not-so-distant future, Earth is barren of all flora and fauna, with what remains of the planet’s former ecosystems preserved aboard a fleet of greenhouses orbiting in space. When the crews are ordered to destroy the remaining specimens, one botanist, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern, The ’Burbs), rebels and flees towards Saturn in a desperate bid to preserve his own little piece of Earth that was, accompanied only by the ship’s three service robots.
Featuring a captivating central performance by Dern, visual effects that rival anything in 2001 and a powerful ecological message, Silent Running is a haunting and prescient sci-fi classic that resonates even more strongly today than it did at the time of its original release.
Arrow Video presents Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. Arrow has performed an all-new 2K restoration of the film, which has been sourced from a 4K scan of the 35mm original camera negative.
Arrow has really gone all out with this one, improving significantly over the older Universal and Masters of Cinema editions, both of which appear to have used the same older high-def master. This presentation has a far more film-like texture to it, rendering grain beautifully and delivering the finer details effortlessly: the stitching of that heavy, cotton robe that Dern wears on occasion throughout the film looks absolutely incredible here. Colours look wonderful as well, reds and blues looking saturated perfectly, and black levels are rich and deep for the most part, still allowing for decent shadow detail. A few blacks can look a bit milky in places, but I think that comes down more to the original photography.
The restoration work has also been more thorough: a few minor specs remain but on the whole the image is very clean. The film is incredibly grainy, but, as mentioned beforehand, the grain is rendered cleanly, never looking noisy or blocky. This looks absolutely amazing in the end.
Arrow includes a lossless PCM monaural soundtrack. Despite the film being science fiction with handful of action-oriented sequences its more reflective in nature and the soundtrack replicates that feeling. Dialogue is strong and clear, as are effects, all of which shows some surprising range. The film’s music is folksier in nature, but again range is pretty wide, and fidelity is excellent, allowing the music to come off sharp and clear. A surround upgrade probably would have worked, but as it is the monaural soundtrack does a rather wonderful job in handling everything.
The film has received a few releases on DVD and Blu-ray, including a DVD and Blu-ray special edition from Universal in North America along with a Blu-ray edition from the Masters of Cinema line in the UK, but Arrow’s easily bests them out, packing on a number of new features while carrying everything over from those editions.
The same audio commentary featuring Trumbull and actor Bruce Dern that first appeared on Universal’s special edition DVD yet again shows up here. Recorded together the two talk about the film’s production, which came about thanks to a project from Universal looking to capitalize on the success of Columbia Pictures’ Easy Rider: financing five films by fresh young directors for less than a million dollars each, with the other four films being Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, Milos Forman’s Taking Off, and George Lucas’ American Graffiti. Trumbull talks a lot about the technical aspects of the film and the effects work, explaining how he really tried to avoid optical effects if he could, and goes as far as even recounting the various deals he made with third parties to keep costs down and get the materials he needed for the film. Trumbull even talks about his work up to this point, including his near-bankruptcy when he underbid his work for The Andromeda Strain. Dern, admitting he doesn’t have the know-how when it comes to the technical aspects of filmmaking, talks primarily about his performance and the filming, and even talks about how the film has held.
It’s a great track that keeps things interesting, and if one hasn’t listened to it yet I’d recommend it. But if I had to choose between the two audio commentaries on here, I’d probably choose the second track recorded exclusively for this release by critics Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw. The two give some history behind the film and talk about its strong attributes while also (fairly) picking at its weaker ones. But they also get into interesting conversations about science-fiction, what makes a science-fiction film, and how Silent Running fits the criteria. They address how the film was a commercial failure while growing an audience over the years, which leads to discussion of other such films (bombs that have garnered new appreciation) and how these films led to remakes or sequels today, like Blade Runner. Still, it’s unlikely this film will ever get any sort of reimagining like that film, and they explain why they feel that way. They both have a fondness for the film but they’re fair in their assessment of it and I feel I came out appreciating the film a bit more than I had prior to it.
Arrow also throws in a couple of other new features., both running about 14-minutes and both presented more as video essays rather than standard interviews. No Turning Back features film music historian Jeff Bond talking about the film’s score and how Joan Baez came to write music for the film, while offering insights on how the music works with the film, going over a handful of sequences. Following that is First Run, put together by Jon Spira and covering the early draft of the script. Trumbull does touch on early drafts in his commentary, explaining a very different film, but through this essay, which makes use of illustrations to help visualize some of the script changes, we get to see the early film was far darker in its content. I found this inclusion especially interesting.
The rest of the material is all archival, having appeared on the previous Universal and Masters of Cinema editions. There is a 49-minute making-of documentary created at the time of shooting, documenting the various aspects of the film, from production design (like costumes) to the effects work. There are also interviews with Dern, the performers that were in the drone outfits, director of photography Charles Wheeler, associate producer Marty Hornstein, editor Aaron Stell, and others. The film was shot primarily at a naval base (on one of the ships as I understood it) and there’s plenty of footage from the location. Not too surprisingly, some at the base didn’t know what to make of Dern’s long hair.
Also carried over are two interviews with Douglas Trumbull. There’s a short 5-minute one where Trumbull just talks about his general career and how the failure of Silent Running led to him getting into the technical side of filmmaking, like designing cameras and equipment, and even designing rides for amusement parks (like the Back to the Future ride). There’s also a longer 30-minute one where Trumbull talks specifically about Silent Running and its production. Some of the information expands on topics covered in his commentary, but he gets a bit more into the effects work, the development, and such.
Bruce Dern’s 11-minute interview also gets ported over, featuring the actor talking about his first major role (Dern saying he wasn’t even “guest star on TV” famous yet) and recalling what a pleasant experience it was to make the film. He also expresses his surprise at the fanbase the film seems to have developed.
Like the Masters of Cinema edition in the UK, Arrow includes an isolated score soundtrack, presented here in lossless PCM 2.0 mono. They also include the film’s original trailer, which has been cropped for the Academy ratio. Exclusive to this edition is a new, very large photo gallery, featuring over 630 production photos. I swore some pictures were the same, though on closer inspection they appear to be just taken from slightly different angles. The last 50-or-so photos are black-and-white while the rest are in colour, and the gallery will automatically play. You can skip through using the chapter buttons on your remote.
Closing the release off is a booklet, exclusive to the first printing (along with an O-sleeve). It features two essays, a general one about the film written by Barry Forshaw and another about Bruce Dern written by Peter Tonguette. All-around Arrow has put together an excellent edition, gathering all previous material available and adding on some excellent features.
The ultimate edition for the film, it features a stunning new visual presentation and an excellent assortment of supplements covering the film from a variety of angles. Highly recommended for fans, even if you own any of the previous editions.