Why you should care

Because Silent Running showed his full range well before this year’s supposed breakthrough in Nebraska — and in the process helped make Mad Men possible.

A full carton containing 24 brand-new Blu-rays of Bruce Dern in the beloved sci-fi film Silent Running might retail for about a thousand dollars — or $250 more than Universal originally offered Steven Bochco to co-write it.

But this prescient, earnest 1972 movie is worth far more than a grand to a growing armada of admirers. It’s about astronaut Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), who’s been assigned to tend a fleet of insectoid, spaceship-mounted glass domes containing every last tree and shrub that Earth’s pollution hasn’t already killed off. As with all the biomass cruising through outer space, every Silent Running fan who dies just becomes mulch for the many more who sprout up in his wake.

In the early ’70s, Hill Street Blues co-creator Bochco — rightly celebrated as a pioneer of the communal, writer’s-room-style of television writing lately practiced on The Sopranos, Mad Men and their ilk — was a snot-nosed 27-year-old contract writer on the Universal Studios lot. Even the underrated Richie Brockelman, Private Eye, to say nothing of a 1973 TV rewrite of Double Indemnity starring poor Richard Crenna, lay far in Bochco’s future. Edward G. Robinson, who played the wily claims adjuster in the 1944 original, died the year the TV version debuted, quite possibly after watching it.

With little advertising, they cast it adrift in theaters like one of the movie’s own forested arks, and the picture wilted.

“They told me they needed a shooting script in 10 days,” Bochco says of Silent Running now, between edits on his new show, Murder in the First. “[Director] Doug Trumbull was already transforming an abandoned aircraft carrier in San Pedro for his main set, and they had to get going. So I came up with a story to fit the concept outlined in the pages they gave me and turned in a screenplay in less than 10 days. I was paid WGA-minimum which, at the time as I recall, was 750 dollars a week. They were so pleased, they paid me for two full weeks! Fifteen hundred dollars! Wow!”

Bochco’s credited co-writers, Michael Cimino and Deric Washburn (later director and screenwriter of The Deer Hunter, respectively), may remember these events differently, but no one can dispute what happened next. Universal opened their “bio-domes in space” movie at, of all places, the Cinerama Dome. The reviews came in, most of them excellent, but — reeling like the rest of the industry from the ex nihilo success of Easy Rider — Universal thought pure word of mouth could sell Silent Running. With little advertising, they cast it adrift in theaters like one of the movie’s own forested arks, and the picture wilted.

Silent Running sent Bochco fleeing back to where he’d come from: “My experience with it is what made me determined to go into television full time, where I knew that eventually I’d earn control over what I wrote. (Hill Street Blues being a very good example.)”

Dern’s turn as Lowell points to one of the regrettably untaken paths in a nevertheless fine career.

Dern’s turn as Lowell points to one of the regrettably untaken paths in a nevertheless fine career. After Silent Running, he went back to playing too many cackling psychos and cuckolded jerks — even if the latter won him his only Oscar nomination before this year for Coming Home.

The enduring glory of Silent Running is, natch, Dern’s performance. Long before Sandra Bullock strapped on a motion capture suit or Joaquin Phoenix held disembodied conversations with Her’s Siri-like Circe, Dern spends most of Silent Running acting opposite three knee-high mechanical drones (endearingly if invisibly played by a trio of double amputees). Lowell’s lonely sweetness gives the lie to a current Oscar-campaign canard, the one insisting that Nebraska marks Dern’s departure from the supposedly notorious scenery-devouring of his youth.

Yes, Dern goes even more bug-eyed in one scene (below) than the twinned geodesic domes at his spaceship’s prow. But the real revelation is how quiet he stays between freak-outs. Dern’s soft, intimate, confiding voice, whether soothing a skittish rabbit in the movie’s first moments or teaching the androids how to lose at poker, shepherds Silent Running’s dialogue past its more purple passages. Sometimes his consonants sound almost like raindrops.

Does Lowell sense the impending violence that his three fellow astronauts are courting by destroying his proto-biospheres? He pleads with his crewmates (including a pre-Alias, pre-L.A. Confidential, pre-Substance of Fire Ron Rifkin, not yet bald but already pretty great). The forests, Dern implores, are “not replaceable.” Neither is he.

Former NEA literature director David Kipen writes about the arts from his hometown of Los Angeles, where he founded the nonprofit lending library Libros Schmibros.

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