TELEPRESENCE IN POPULAR CULTURE

A study of portrayals of presence

Silent Running (2 of 2)

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ABOUT THE WORK

MEDIUM:

Film 

YEAR:

1971 

WRITER(S):

Deric Washburn Michael Cimino Steven Bochco 

OWN COPY?

No 
 

ABOUT THE STORY

SUMMARY:

The movie depicts a future in which all plant life on Earth has been made extinct, and only a few specimens have been preserved in large, greenhouse-like geodesic domes attached to a fleet of American Airlines "Space Freighters" positioned just outside the orbit of Saturn. Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is part of the four person crew aboard the Valley Forge, one of the 2,000 foot-long freighters, and is the resident botanist / ecologist dedicated to preserving the forests for their eventual return to Earth, and the reforestation of the planet. In constant disagreement with his crewmates over the objective of their mission (they being more anxious to return to Earth after a one-year tour of duty), Lowell spends his time in the forests, cultivating the plant and animal life within them.When orders come from Earth to jettison and destroy the domes (with nuclear charges), and return the freighters to commercial service, Lowell opts instead to save the last remaining forests in existence. After four of the six domes on the Valley Forge are jettisoned and destroyed, Lowell kills one of his crewmates in a struggle (which leaves him seriously injured), and manages to trap the other two crew members in a dome that he jettisons and destroys. Enlisting the aid of the ship's three service robots (drones), Lowell stages a fake premature dome detonation and a cargo bay explosion as a ruse, and sends the Valley Forge careening away from the space freighter fleet, towards Saturn, in an attempt to hijack the ship and flee with the last forest dome. Injured and alone with the three drones, Lowell reprograms them to perform surgery on his leg. Still in communication with the rest of the fleet, Lowell is informed that the Valley Forge is on a collision course with Saturn's rings, and there is nothing he can do to stop the catastrophic event. The ship will likely be destroyed. With communications failing due to the distance now between the Valley Forge and the rest of the fleet, the ship passes through the rings of Saturn. The three drones are outside the ship on maintenance duty, when Drone 3 (Louie) is blown away from the ship, leaving two remaining drones. The ship, and the precious dome, emerge undamaged on the other side of the rings. Totally alone, Lowell and the drones set out into deep space, away from the fleet, on a quest to maintain the forest. During the trip, Lowell befriends the drones, renaming them Huey, Dewey and Louie (Drone 02, 01 and 03 respectively), teaching them to plant trees and play poker (in a memorable scene). However, Lowell's conscience sets in, as he instructs the drones to bury the crewmate he killed in the dome. With thoughts of the human toll he has taken to save the last forest, Lowell is horrified when he realizes that his forest is dying from some unknown cause. Desperate, he rushes to the dome, badly damaging Huey in an accident with one of the ship's buggies. Repairs are unsuccessful, the forest is dying, and Lowell begins to come to the unsettling conclusion that his mission to save the forest has failed. fter weeks alone in space, faint radio chatter is heard from a rescue party mounted from the Valley Forge's sister ship, the Berkshire, who have located the freighter after a long search. Finally able to communicate with Lowell, they tell him that they will be able to reach him within six hours he must jettison the dome but not detonate the nuclear charge, as it is too dark to do so safely. Perhaps somewhat belatedly, given his botanical background, Lowell now realizes that what was killing the forest was the lack of sunlight. With little time to work, he wires up several banks of grow lights to simulate sunlight, and instructs the last healthy drone, Dewey, to "just maintain the forest." Realizing that his crime will be uncovered when the Berkshire finds an undamaged ship and a buried crew member, Lowell jettisons the last dome to safety with the words "take good care of the forest, Dewey." With the Berkshire two hours away from docking, Lowell and the damaged Huey are sitting down, facing each other, while Lowell arms the last six nuclear charges. Prepared to destroy himself to atone for his crime, and ensure the escape of the last dome, Lowell says to Huey "When I was a kid, I put a note into a bottle, and it had my name and address on it. And then I threw the bottle into the ocean. And I never knew if anyone ever found it." With that, Lowell destroys the Valley Forge with the last of the onboard nuclear charges. The final, poignant scene is of a well-lit forest greenhouse drifting into space, tended by the sole remaining drone with a battered watering can, with a musical accompaniment from Joan Baez. (from Wikipedia). 

ERA/YEAR:

Near future 

CHARACTERISTICS
OF WORLD:

People living on space ships and rely on machines, known as drones, to do work for them. 
 
ABOUT THE PRESENCE-EVOKING TECHNOLOGY
NAME:
drones 
DESCRIPTION:
Small machines that move around the space ship and domes and perform various functions. Lowell engages with the drones as though they are human, mainly because they respond to human speech. Because Lowell is alone on the ship, he comes to view the three drones (Huey, Dewey, and Louie) as friends. In addition, Lowell adds various programs to the drones to help them function better. 
NATURE OF TASK OR ACTIVITY:
Lowell has the drones perform surgery on his injured leg. In addition, he has them undertake various duties in the domed forests to maintain them. 
PERFORMANCE OF THE TECHNOLOGY:
The drones perform their functions very well, so efficiently that humans are not necessary. 
 
ABOUT THE CREATORS OF THE TECHNOLOGY
DESCRIPTION:
There is no discussion of who created the drones, but clearly they were developed and programmed by humans. 
MAJOR GOAL(S):
For the drones to perform functions in place of human beings. 
 
ABOUT THE PEOPLE WHO EXPERIENCE PRESENCE
DESCRIPTION:
Lowell is a nature-loving scientist in his mid to late 30s. He is upset by the fact that all of the trees, plants, and flowers on earth have been destroyed and is intent on protecting the forests in the space domes. 
 
ABOUT THE PRESENCE EXPERIENCE
TYPE(S) OF PRESENCE:
Social presence 
DESCRIPTION:
It is as if Lowell is speaking to and interacting with human beings. This is particularly evident when he plays cards with the drones. 
USER AWARENESS:
Lowell is quite aware he is using technology. 
VALENCE:
Lowell appears to find it enjoyable. Because he has killed his crewmates, he has no choice but to befriend the drones if he wants to have any human-like interactions. 
SPECIFIC RESPONSES:
 
 
ABOUT THE CONSEQUENCES OF PRESENCE
LONG-TERM CONSEQUENCES:
After several weeks alone in space, Lowell is radioed by a ship that is coming to rescue him. Because he knows his crimes will be discovered, he detaches the last remaining dome and leaves a drone, Dewey, in charge of maintaining the forest. Thus demonstrating that technology is sometimes as effective as human beings. Lowell then blows up up himself and his ship. 
 
AND FINALLY...
OTHER INFORMATION:
 
CODER NAME:
Eliza Jacobs 
CODER E-MAIL:
eliza.jacobs@temple.edu 
CODER AFFILIATION:
Temple University Philadelphia, PA 
DATE CODED:
10/25/2006 

 


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