Silent Running, Joan Baez, and why CGI still isn’t there yet

I’d been planning to write a post today about Robin Hobb’s The Dragon Keeper and women explorers, such as the awesome Isabelle Eberhardt. But then, as I was doing the washing up, and had left Media Player to its own devices in selecting my background music, it did what it sometimes does, and called up one of my embarrassing self-made sing-a-longs. Me, having a go at Joan Baez’s ‘Rejoice in the Sun’, from the soundtrack to Silent Running.

The reason I had done this is that, at the time of making, I had developed a craving for the music, and was unable to download it – so I made my own. Don’t worry, I’m not going to subject you to that. But I do find it a genuinely beautiful piece of music, along with her other song from that movie: ‘Silent Running’.

Now, I can see how, perhaps, these songs might be a bit overblown and hippy-tastic for some people’s tastes, but I think that, combined with the visuals, they are stunning. They have haunted me since I first saw them at… what? Age 4? Age 5 at the latest. We’d taped it off the TV, and I watched and rewatched it. It was one of the more formative films of my childhood, along with The Wizard of Oz, The Land Before Time, Tron, Logan’s Run, and the like.

It probably warped me a bit. I was a very small child watching what is actually a very grown up, nuanced, and rather bleak film, barely alleviated by the cute robots.

A cute robot.

It certainly set me on the path for rabid environmentalism that dominated much of my early beliefs, and probably influenced my first great ambition: to be a marine biologist. Of course, I (semi-)grew out of that when the world didn’t end, and there were still lots of trees and flowers and shit… until in the naughties, environmentalism came back with a vengeance, with real scientists, rather than a bunch of hippy film makers, saying that, no, really, we’re all doomed if we don’t get our act together. However, perhaps more significant in my mental make-up was my identification with the main character. Not only did I agree with his sentiments, but the other characters struck me as bullies, making Lowell the only faintly likable person in the film (except for the cute robots).

Here’s the thing about Lowell, though: he’s a bit crazy.

He’s self-righteous, he won’t leave his hobby-horse alone, and he is forever criticising the people around him, even when they might be won over by a more gentle tactic. Oh, and he kills people over it.

But here’s the thing: he’s not wrong. And we can understand how he got the way he did. The Earth (however improbable it is that we might survive if this were true – remember, it’s the FUTURE, and not cool one where we all have iPads) literally has no plant life left. This man has given up everything to look after the last of the Earth’s natural habitats in space until they can clean up the place well enough to bring all the plants and wildlife back without them dying. He’s been out there for years, watching his companions (who must have been equally dedicated, once) lose the faith, and come to care just about fucking around, drinking, and hoping they’ll be allowed home. And now he gets the message that it was all for nothing, and the idiots back on Earth are going to blow it all up. No more wildlife. Ever. Because it’s easier this way, and there’s no more money left. And Lowell does everything he can to preserve what’s left for future generations.

I don’t think he’s in the wrong, and he doesn’t want to kill the other men, but he is obsessive, and he’s not 100% a sympathetic character. He’s not meant to be. I think we’re meant to be conflicted about him. But as a kid, he was the hero, and despite what he had to do, he wasn’t wrong, and I grieved with him for the loss of the environment, and the plants and animals he had cared for. I’m fairly sure it taught me some bad lessons about how you deal with people who disagree with you. Not, you know, murderous lessons, but ‘I will tell you in great detail exactly why you are wrong even if it means you don’t like me, because someone has to stand up for this shit or we’re all doomed‘ sort of lessons. It didn’t make me any friends.

Part of me still wishes I had that kind of energy and self-belief, though. Eventually, I got sick of having no friends, and became a much meeker person, and meek isn’t good in my line of work. Argumentative and determined is good. I used to be that person, but they’re not very nice to be around. There should be some middle ground. I guess that would be part of the ‘happiness max’, but I haven’t found it, yet.

Still, even if it isn’t fun to be one, I think maybe we need people like that. I think we also need people who talk about things in a less confrontational way, and who get less people’s backs up, but we also need people who rage against the dying of the light. And that’s what Lowell is doing – literally, in fact, as we see when he has to find a way to keep the plants alive as the Valley Forge gets farther and farther from the sun.

A passionate person who won’t let you alone to enjoy your easy life until you see what it has cost you, and everyone else.

This is an amazing film, still utterly relevant today… and whatever damage it did to my tender psyche, I’m not sure I’m sorry I saw it at so young an age. It’s also a film that has aged incredibly well. Those model spaceships, and the ‘space’ they fly through, are ten times as realistic to my eye as any CGI space we have so far achieved. What vistas! That’s the stuff that leaves you with a lifetime addiction to sci-fi, and dreams of interstellar flight.