A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
In the not very distant future, man has at last finished with Earth. The mountains are leveled and the valleys filled in, and there are no growing plants left to mess things up. Everything is nice and sterile, and man's global housekeeping has achieved total defoliation. Out around the rings of Saturn, a few lonely spaceships keep their vigil. They're interplanetary greenhouses, pointed always toward the sun. Inside their acres and acres of forests, protected by geodesic domes that gather the sunlight, the surviving plants and small animals of Earth grow. There are squirrels and rabbits and moonlit nights when the wind does actually seem to breathe in the trees: a ghostly reminder of the dead forests of Earth.
The keeper of one of these greenhouses, Freeman Lowell, loves the plants and animals with a not terribly acute intelligence. "Silent Running" his story. In an earlier day, he might have been a forest ranger and happily spent the winter all alone in a tower, spotting forest fires. Now he is millions of miles from Earth, but his thoughts are filled with weedings and prunings, fertilizer and the artificial rainfall.
One day the word comes from Earth: Destroy the greenhouses and return. Lowell cannot bring himself to do this, and so he destroys his fellow crew members instead. Then he hijacks his spaceship and directs it out into the deep galactic night. All of this is told with simplicity and a quiet ecological concern, and it makes "Silent Running" a movie out of the ordinary -- especially if you like science fiction.
The director is Douglas Trumbull, a Canadian who designed many of the special effects for Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Trumbull also did the computers and the underground laboratory for "The Andromeda Strain," and is one of the best science-fiction special-effects men. "Silent Running," which has deep space effects every bit the equal of those in "2001," also introduces him as an intelligent, if not sensational, director.