Silent Running – BFI Film Classics (Book Review)


The good Doctor Mark Kermode has written a new book on Douglas Trumbull’s 1970s science fiction cult film Silent Running. It’s part of the BFI film classics series and it’s the third book Kermode has written in the series; he previously wrote ones on The Exorcist (his favourite film of all-time) and The Shawshank Redemption. It coincides with the BFI Sci-Fi season that is currently on at BFI Southbank and other venues across the country.

Kermode takes a deeply personal approach to Silent Running. It’s a film that he has been obsessed with ever since he first saw it in London Casino Cinema, aged 9, during the film’s initial run. Towards the end of the book he quite beautifully writes about how he would often stare at the soundtrack album’s LP cover and relive the film through memory- these were the days before VHS, after all.

Throughout the book’s mere 87 pages Kermode dissects the film quite thoroughly: he discusses everything from Douglas Trumbull’s involvement with 2001: A Space Odyssey, (it can be argued Silent Running was a response to the emotional coldness of that film) to the casting of double amputees as the robots who are Lowell’s (Bruce Dern) companions. It talks about the obvious connection to the Vietnam War, which lingers over almost all American films of the 1970s. Kermode’s points are helped by insightful interview excerpts of interviews he has done with the film’s director Trumbull, including one from 2014. It also expertly uses stills from the film alongside a making-of documentary and other behind the scenes materials.

As any good book should, it made me re-visit the film after reading it. I had seen the film a handful of times before and always loved it, but after reading Kermode’s love letter to his favourite science fiction film it gave me an even deeper appreciation of it. It really is one of the most impressive science fiction films of the 1970s; the fact it cost them just over a million is astonishing. It may be sentimental (not unlike Kermode’s book) but it’s at least sincere and not forced. The film’s influence can also be certainly felt in more recent films like Wall-E and Moon and has rightfully entered the canon of great films.

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