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Silent Running (1972,USA)

04/01/2012

Director: Douglas Trumbull            Starring: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint

Moving on from one DVD studio of discerning taste and admirable dedication to quality (Arrow Video – see The Beyond) sees me arrive at another with this special edition of Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 environmentalist sci-fi tale Silent Running. In this case it has been released as part of Eureka!’s Masters Of Cinema series, a series which has a weighty reputation for providing some of the finest cinema from around the world in the very best quality possible for home viewing. I’ve had the pleasure of viewing a few M.O.C. DVDs and certainly wasn’t disappointed but I’ve been eager to see how they would fare bringing their prestigious remastering talents to bear on a blu ray release.

In the future, Earth’s rich botanical heritage has been consigned to vast geodesic domes carried by enormous space freighters in order to preserve what little vegetation remains, presumably due to some horrendous environmental catastrophe. When the crews of the freighters are given the order to destroy the domes and return to Earth so that their ships can be retasked to more commercial purposes Freeman Lowell (Dern), the botanist aboard the Valley Forge, mutinees and heads off into deep space with the last remaining specimens of Earth’s forests, where the isolation and the slow decay of his beloved plants take their toll on his mind.

There is a lot to like about this film. Dern puts in a great performance as the evangelical hippy Lowell, the constant butt of his fellow crew member’s jokes and alone in his fanatical belief in the importance of their work. His mental collapse when the order is given to nuke the gardens is utterly convincing, as is his descent into haunted madness while he has to deal with his guilt for his more unsavoury actions in the loneliness of deep space.

The production design (for the most part) is rather impressive too, the interior of the real life US Navy’s Valley Forge doubling for Trumbull’s space-faring version which lends suitable heft to the production and they’ve certainly managed to stretch the film’s relatively low budget to cover the major bases. The model work for the ship’s exteriors is just as good and is probably the best example of its kind until ILM reinvented the wheel with Star Wars. If you wanted to be picky (and let’s face it – I usually do) then you could probably find fault with the far-out, circular pool table of the future (it’s just a bit silly) or the equally unconvincing look-it’s-a-real-robot pool player that accompanies it. The maintenance droids that keep Lowell company in the darkness of space are arguably just as silly but it would be unfair to suggest they didn’t have a certain charm about them.

I guess the biggest flaw in the film is Lowell’s inability to pin down why the plants start to die out once he is safely ensconced in the darkness of space. He is, after all, a botanist and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what might be going wrong with the plants so to a trained botanist, even a grief and guilt stricken one going a teeny tiny bit mad in the depths of space, should really have no trouble at all. Despite this it becomes a source of deep (and regrettably unbelievable) frustration for the plant loving Lowell. It’s a logical stumbling block in an otherwise plausible plot. Forgivable, but a little bit jarring nonetheless.

As for the transfer? Well. Impeccable is the word that springs to mind. A shining testament to the very clearly deserved reputation of the Masters Of Cinema releases. Even without the extra features and very satisfying 48 page booklet that are included in the package, the sheer quality of the main feature is worth the price of the blu ray alone. As much as I expected it to be good they have delivered something really rather spectacular, a testament to the love and devotion the Masters Of Cinema team clearly have to film. Where else can you rely on the accompanying booklet to provide you with specific recommendations for aspect ratios and TV settings to ensure you get the best possible viewing experience of a title as it was intended to be seen?

Much like the Arrow Video releases, the Eureka! Masters Of Cinema titles are proof that there are those in the industry who care primarily about the art and the presentation of that artwork to their customers ahead of profits and sales volumes, something that fills my heart with joy. Of course it only serves to highlight how disappointing a standard, major studio release is by comparison. Surely these monstrous labels with their deep pockets and vast resources could afford to present their products in such carefully and lovingly crafted ways? Is it wrong to expect the big boys to care about anything other than money? Personally, I don’t think so but I can’t imagine them changing their shamefully lazy ways any time soon. In the meantime, we should count ourselves lucky that there are small but dedicated labels committed to releasing discs (not to mention films) of this quality.

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