Monday, 21 November 2011

Blu-ray Review: 'Silent Running'

Yes, I'm still here.

Just ahead of its 40th anniversary, Eureka brings Douglass Trumbull’s Silent Running to Blu-ray as part of their ‘Masters of Cinema’ series.

The Film

All plant life on Earth has become extinct; and what little natural beauty remains is now housed within giant domes situated on enormous space freighters. Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) works aboard Valley Forge with his three crewmates (one of whom is played by that guy from Forbidden World). Lowell pours his heart into looking after the contained environments, and hopefully awaits orders for them to refoliate the planet. But disaster strikes when they are instead commanded to abandon the project and destroy the domes. Unable to obey, Lowell does the unthinkable. Soon, he’s drifting through space with only three maintenance drones for company; and the last remaining forest dome to care for.

Avid gardeners and sci-fi lovers... this is your film.         

Key to it all is Dern, who utterly convinces as the unhinged space hippy. This is a largely one man show, and if he wasn’t able to give a great performance, then the whole picture would’ve come crashing down. Lowell is actually quite a fascinating character. He goes to extreme lengths to protect what he loves, but how should we feel about that? Of course he’s wrong, but you can’t help being sympathetic towards his plight.

The drones complement him perfectly. Once the peripheral crewmates are out of the picture, these waddling modified Nintendo 64s are all Lowell has left to interact with. Nicknamed Huey, Dewey and Louie, he upgrades their capabilities – allowing them to patch up his leg after an incident, help tend to the forest, and even play poker. And you know what? Despite having no dialogue whatsoever (unless you count the odd beep), they’re full of more warmth and personality than any Transformer I’ve ever seen.  

But while there is a plot to think about and characters to care for, Silent Running is very much a film for the senses. Trumbull worked on the effects for 2001 so he’d clearly have a good eye for something as visual as this. Aside from the obligatory views of enormous ships slowly passing through the void of space, the film revels in showing us all the flora and cutesy fauna (bunnies!) of Lowell’s forest domain – often accompanied by Joan Baez’s singing. The “flower power” attitude may date the film somewhat, but it’s always a delightful experience.

Not to mention a thematically haunting one.

The Disc

Natural is a word that often sprang to my mind while watching Eureka’s Silent Running Blu-ray. This is, inherently, a rather soft film with an abundance of grain; and I’m very glad to see it’s been kept that way. Grain levels do unexpectedly spike on occasion (leading to “snow storm” instances), but there’s always loads of fine detail on show. Take a look at the clearly visible textures on clothing, or the complex exterior shots of the Valley Forge for just a couple of excellent examples of the increased clarity on offer here.

Colours stand out to me as the transfer’s most impressive quality. Skin tones are pleasingly normal, while the lush greens and earthy browns of the forest dome genuinely pop – as does Lowell’s bright blue jacket. There’s no “teal and orange” controversy going on here, that’s for sure.

I did notice a small amount of edge enhancement, but it only appeared in one or two scenes and was far less obvious than some of the thick white halos seen burdening other discs. There’s also some shimmering here and there, but you can probably put that down to the film’s source materials. On the whole, Eureka has done a commendably cinematic job with their transfer.

Also pleasing is the faithfully presented HD mono audio. Dialogue and music is clear and precise, while sound effects are satisfyingly robust. That early scene where the domes are being detached, with everything clanging, screeching and then exploding is a real wake-up-the-neighbours moment. As impressive as a remixed HD 5.1 option can be, I’m a big fan of these more old-school audio presentations.

Eureka complement the film with a decent selection of extra features, including a comprehensive making-of documentary, interviews with Bruce Dern and Douglass Trumbull  (both of whom also provide a commentary), while there’s even an isolated music and effects track for your auditory pleasure. Yes, there’s little new material here, but it’s still good value overall. In addition, the SteelBook edition packaging is nice and sturdy - neatly bearing the original theatrical poster art - and houses an extensively detailed 48 page booklet.


Although not my first Eureka Blu-ray (I may have bought the... Human Centipede... ahem), I’m ashamed to admit that this is indeed my first ‘Masters of Cinema’ purchase. But if this impressive high-definition release of Silent Running is anything to go by, then I’m sure it won’t be my last. Eureka has clearly treated Trumbull’s eco-friendly sci-fi cult classic with the utmost respect, meaning this release deserves your attention.           

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