Thoughts On: Silent Running
This early 70s sci-fi classic follows Freeman, an ecologist aboard a ship holding the last of Earth’s botanical life, when the command is given to destroy the cargo.
I’ll start by saying this is not a great film. I really like this film and it is excellent, but it is not flawless. That said, I’m not going to be criticising this film. As always, I’ll be using the film as a platform to talk about its ideas. What I love so much about this film is the control of the protagonist over plot, structuring and narrative in general. Every moment of this film is imbued with Freeman’s perspective. Now, this kind of makes the film great. Almost all of its downfalls in plotting and sense are attributable to the fact that this is Freeman’s story, not a screenwriter’s or director’s. Not directly – or at least that’s the fantastic illusion it creates. That’s not to say that the film pulls a move like Life Of Pi and cops-out at the end by saying, ‘but was it all real?’. It doesn’t have its faults a matter of semantics. The ‘faults’ in plot such as the obvious fact that plants need sunlight, are down to Freeman’s hubris and so naturally flourish from the character. This begs the question of: why don’t I think this film is great then? Well, the lapses in logic are one thing, but the design and world building as well as segments of acting aren’t great, but, like I said, we’re not here to criticise. What we’re going to talk about with this film is the idea of character driven story and the whole concept of human perception,
Watching this film, paying attention to its structure, it becomes clear it’s quite an unconventional picture. What many screenwriters want when they face a blank sheet, or blank document on a screen, is help, answers, a way to tackle their story. If you’re one of those people, stop. The reason why Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat and his ‘beat sheet’ are so successful is because screenwriters want answers, a cheat, a formula to follow to make their lives easier. Now, I started off with Save The Cat and Screenplay. And what is pretty apparent is that the book’s main use is of an insight into another writer’s method. Knowing other people’s methods is always interesting and allows you to reflect on your own. Screenplay is the better of the books as it tells you the truth that there is no formula for a good story. Save The Cat says quite the opposite. It claims that all successful pictures have the same beats. And, in fact, it proves this quite well. But, the beat sheet it then gives you… ignore it, please. Story telling is a natural thing, and so are the beats of a story. Blake Snyder has simply found a paradigm to fit the natural reflexes of story tellers. You don’t need a beat sheet to write a good script. You need practice and you need to watch a lot of movies or read a lot of screenplays. That’s how Blake Snyder got to the beat sheet and jumping the processes of learning and skipping right to revision notes is not going to get you a good grade in the test. I know I’ve spoken to screenwriters specifically here, but this applies to all facets of art and creating.
All regular movie goers know the structure of a generic film, we’ve been raised on them, so, whether you know it subconsciously or consciously, you know it nonetheless. Now, formulaic films are not bad films. This is like listening to your iPod and hearing the same songs playing over and over (I’m pretty sure I’ve used this analogy before…). Anyway, it’s your brain picks up a pattern, that doesn’t mean it necessarily exists. The same thing happens when you watch a movie to a certain extent. To get from point A to point B as a writer, from start to end, and give an audience what they want (happy endings, character arcs, lessons, such and so on) you are walking a wide, but one-way road. What I mean to say here is that movies follow paradigms because of the stories we want to hear – it’s the same reason on horror tropes exist, any trope for that matter – we wan them. This is not me saying generic films are good though. Generic, formulaic, films are bad when they are predictable to the extent of pointlessness – you’ve seen A Bug’s Life, you don’t really need to see Antz, in the same way that if you’ve seen Carrie (1976) you don’t need to see the 2013 version. But because of the Hollywood machine and people’s over reliance on formula at face value we’re drowning in remakes, sequels, adaptations and the same old crap. What this film makes obvious is that the same old crap is quite avoidable – more than you think.
Wit the idea of character driven plotting you can very easily get an original path from a start to an end. I can draw on many examples of unconventional characters forcing unconventional films – we can look at Shrek, Gone With The Wind, The Wolf Of Wall Street or even an extreme example of Memento. Now, what Memento and this film have that really makes the stories unconventional is their concepts. You know Memento, I’m sure, the film had to be broken because the Nolans used the the character’s perspective to convey story. Silent Running does the same thing, but its original concept comes from the world and situation it’s manufactured. This throws back to my talk here about fantasy, so we’ll move on. With character driven story and narratives not being contorted by a screenwriter wanting to hit ‘beats’ we can let our characters make good or bad decisions and project their inner thoughts to produce original and different films. This is not that hard to grasp. If you have an idea for any kind of story, don’t ask, ‘what do I need to do next?’, but ‘what would my character do next?’, ‘what are they feeling?’. Watching Silent Running you can clearly see how Freeman dictates his path from start to end. My main point here is that stories should be the product of a good idea and good characters flourishing, building their own plot. I think it’s obvious that good films write themselves. Yes, we can step in and make sure our story doesn’t fall into familiar territory (please do) but when you try and pump out a formula and then bend a film around it, well, we get the same old contrived and boring stuff. This film stands as testament to the idea of naturally forming films, from character and concept.
This is also why I love concept films so much. All films are about ideas. The best films have the best ideas in my opinion. Favourite films and best films are completely different – an obvious fact. This is why people say Star Wars is the best film ever made – because they enjoy it so much–it’s their favourite. But, I’m not going to get into Star Wars, I always feel like I’m on the precipice of doing so–but, another time. My love of concept films links to ideas of movies giving birth to naturally forming plots and them being a way to produce unique stories. What’s the concept of this film? It lies in perspective. This film is about searching in the dark, running silently through life with no idea what we’re doing, unable to ask the right questions to get the answers we need. Such is existence. Watching Freeman’s perspective through this film, for me, is a very humbling thing. Me and Freeman are not very much the same. He loves nature and reveres its beauty in a poetic and love-struck kind of way. I think nature’s cool and I can appreciate its beauty, but not on a surface level and so deeply as this character does. I could so easily get so annoyed at this character if I tried. People love to hate those different from them. Characters we don’t agree with can make a film unbearable for some–for me at times. But this film opened up honestly and I accepted that me and it weren’t the same. It immediately said ‘I love the environment. We need to protect Earth’. I have no qualms with that. What so many films like to do is spring that idea on you at the end or midway through. Look at Avatar. The main character goes through an arc of growing tolerance. This is screenwriting 101. But, audiences hate it. They hate it because you are saying they are an idiot who doesn’t care about the environment and you need to change. Yeah, we absolutely hate that. And, for the exact same reason, we hate Jehovah Witnesses or Mormons knocking at our doors. Whilst we can hide from them (as best as we can) or at least hide our shame and embarrassment at the fact that everyone knows what is going on, Mormons outside especially–BUT STILL THEY KNOCK!! WHY!? They must love being ignored!… I don’t know.. Whilst we can hide from Mormons we have to bear a film, writhing in our seat, growing more and more annoyed. This film respects you by staying true to its character’s perspective, and doesn’t try and worm its way into guilt tripping and changing yours. You gotta love that.
I think what I’ve got to be making clear is that character driven stories are ultimately likeable–even loveable at times. With true characters and a genuine film that doesn’t betray itself you don’t need to have the best models or set design, nor the greatest acting of all time. A film can work so well without relying on such components so heavily. It can stand on its own two feet. That makes for a film, any output, you can genuinely be proud of. I’m going to return to Blake Snyder here for a moment. In his book he says he wouldn’t have wanted to have made Memento because, in short, it didn’t make that much money and not everyone has seen it. Ask yourself the same question: would you have rather written Blank Check, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot or even one of the films he cites such as Thelma and Louise or Miss Congeniality? Or would you rather have written Pulp Fiction or Memento? If you’re answer isn’t Memento or Pulp Fiction, stop reading this and go away, I don’t want anything to do with you, I don’t want you to make films and I will not be seeing them. If you agree with me, I quote Blake Snyder here:
‘Oh, and btw, screw Memento!’
Am I right in saying, SCREW BLAKE SNYDER!! What a pretentious little prick! Screw Memento!? The guy wrote Blank Check!… sigh… Anyway, all I hope is that you are put off the idea of overly formulaic writing and at least Save The Cat, and want to hold out with your ‘ridiculously’ and ‘needlessly’ thought-out, original and unique screenplay, book or whatever. I promise the reward you’ll get for that is a million times more precious than millions of dollars. Please tell me that’s obvious.
I’m going to leave the last section by saying not all Blake Snyder’s ideas are bad, or that they deserve to be shat on. Merely take them with a pinch of salt. Save The Cat is not an anchoring point for a writing process, don’t rely on it. read it once or twice if you must, but then buckle in and try some hard work. Moving back to the idea of perspective, this film is very much about being firm in your ways and so ultimately blind (kind of nullifies the last part, but stick around). We grow up to grow into a mould we build around ourselves. We develop ideas, religions, belief systems, dogmatisms–personalities in short. Unless you’re a child your vision is pretty tunnelled. This is how we get though life without an existential breakdown at every turn. This is why people hold on to faith (or a lack thereof), political leanings, ideals, social perspectives and so on. As we all know, once you hit a certain age, there’s just not much that’s going to change us. The mind physically becomes less malleable, less plastic, and so we stay rigid in our ways. This is also why no matter how much you want your significant other to stop obsessing over how the house looks or to actually care, you are having the same arguments day in, day out. People don’t change. They don’t like or want to. The film presents this idea so perfectly. If you watch it and are annoyed at the decisions Freeman is taking you simply don’t understand him or have any insight into your own character.
But, where does this leave us and Freeman? I like to struggle over this kind of question. If we are a certain way, in this case stuck in our ways, what can we do, why, what does that mean, where are we left? Of course there are no definite answers. This comes down to opinion, and so all I can do is give you mine. I think it leaves us in our own worlds – irrevocably disconnected. That sounds all doom and gloom, but I think it’s just the reality we live in. And there’s no need to try and label reality, just bear it. After all, no one’s going to change it. The film seems to agree with me here. Whilst it is about preserving the Earth, it’s more poignant message concerns the preservation of an idea. Despite, being forced to do the unthinkable, despite having to kill co-workers, Freeman does what he believes is right. He does this throughout the film, enduring a hell he needn’t. In the end Freeman commits suicide because of the insurmountable futility he’s faced with. Freeman alone isn’t able to preserve the last of the world’s organic matter. He tried, but he failed. The beautiful allegory he tells us explains why he tried and why he had to give up. I paraphrase, but he tells his robot about putting a message in a bottle with his name and address on and sending it out to sea, never to know if anyone found it. The film is about hope. The film is about Mr. Smith. A big jump, but yes.
In The Matrix, Mr. Smith of course wants to create a world of clones of himself. Mr. Smith is my favourite character of the Matrix trilogy because… Mr. Anderson… and because he is the most human character in the entire Matrix/Real world. He is Neo, just grounded and a true to human nature–excerpt from the Wachowskis’ ideals. That’s not to say they’re wrong for having ideals concerning individuality and so on, but just that I most like Mr. Smith. We all want a world of clones. We are stuck in our own worlds and have those arguments with our significant other over the state of the house because we want to change them, we, to a certain degree, wish they were us, that they just did want we want them to! The film demonstrates that such fights are futile and that people don’t change. We send out our messages in bottles in hope of finding like minds, but once the bottle’s gone it’s most probably never going to find the same hands that sent it off. The film goes a step further than this by showing that whilst we hope, that we want a world of clones, we run, we hope blindly.
Throughout the film, Freeman is bound to this idea of nature, of growing and eating his own food. But what he’s also bound to is technology, his robots that he grows to love so much, more than he does other people, his plants even. The robots come from an idea of artifice, that which kills nature. Freeman’s hubris here, not seeing his core contradiction of ideals and action, is him running silently through his life. He refuses to, or just can’t, see how he preserves his ideals (as represented by the plants) with artifice, with their complete opposing factor. In the same way, you put up with your significant other because you like cleaning up, you like not having to clean up, you like to argue. No one wants the perfect man or woman because they’d just get on our nerves. In the end, the film demonstrates that we are set in our ways, but only because there is a atmosphere around us (that which often contradicts who we are and our ideals) that lets us remain so. Equals and opposites. We need them, but we don’t like them.
Forbidden Planet – Innocence And The Tiger
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