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Green Screen

Updated: Jan 22, 2023

Sci-fi movies, interstellar botany and the End of Days…


Scouring the lists of cultural luminaries who died in 2022, I was reminded of the sad passing of film director and visual effects artist Doug Trumbull, famed for his pioneering work on movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. When I heard that he’d died I posted my own humble tribute on Instagram, declaring my love for his botanically themed 1972 directorial debut, the cult sci-fi classic Silent Running. I must have been about ten years old when I first saw the film and it had a profound effect on me.

A friend of mine, who had known me way back when, and had apparently found my midlife career change a little left-field, commented on my post: ‘so THAT’S where this whole gardening thing comes from!’

And, you know what, I think he’s got a point…

Silent Running features Bruce Dern as botanist Freeman Lowell tending the last remnants of Earth’s stricken flora in giant geodesic greenhouses aboard the commercial space freighter Valley Forge. As events conspire against him, Lowell’s mission becomes an ever more obsessive and, eventually, murderous act of eco-terrorism. Though I was way too young to grasp the film’s prescient environmental warnings (in truth I was too enamoured of his robot companions Huey, Dewey and Louie to notice), something about Lowell’s singular dedication to the plants under his protection must have spoken to me.

The film was certainly a touchstone for my enduring love of movies. As for gardening, perhaps the seeds were also sown then, and simply remained dormant until the time was right. Either way, today my twin obsessions are irrefutably plants and movies.

It turns out that Bruce Dern isn’t alone in being cast adrift in the lonely cosmos with a garden to tend. In fact, there seems to be a whole sci-fi subgenre dedicated to celestial horticulture:

Take Ridley Scott’s 2015 space flick The Martian in which Matt Damon plays marooned botanist Mark Watney, left to fend for himself on a less than fertile Red Planet. As supplies diminish, Damon’s Crusoe-like survival stratagems include the lo-fi task of growing spuds in a make-shift Martian polytunnel, carried out with stoic grit, lots of gaffer tape and the crew’s bio-waste for fertiliser.

In Danny Boyle’s 2007 psychological sci-fi thriller Sunshine Michelle Yeoh also plays a ship’s botanist, Corazon. Equally dogged and similarly resourceful, Yeoh calls on all her horticultural skills to maintain the ship’s green ‘oxygen garden’, a hydroponic life support system aboard the beleaguered spacecraft Icarus I as it hurtles towards the heart of the sun. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well!

Then there’s the 2016 space ‘romance’ Passengers, in which Chris Pratt and a rudely awakened Jennifer Lawrence live out their days transforming their ‘sleeper ship’ Avalon into an interstellar Eden. Infinite space. An indeterminate future. Nothing to do but garden. Oh, and Jennifer Lawrence. I can think of worse End of Days scenarios.

It’s easy to forget, amongst the BMXs and other iconic touchstones of Spielberg’s 1982 classic ET, that our eponymous hero was also an alien botanist, sent on a mission to earth to collect plant specimens in the Californian desert before being stranded by his fleeing compatriots. I seem to remember that he also heads home with a potted chrysanthemum for his efforts.

And what about Wall-E, the protagonist of Pixar’s 2008 post-apocalyptic feature animation of the same name? Granted, he’s no botanist. Nor is he a gardener as such. He’s earth’s sole-surviving ‘trash-compacting’ robot, tasked with clearing-up our garbage-strewn planet. But when he discovers a rogue seedling, Wall-E goes to extraordinary lengths to protect his green companion, elevating it in the process from humble pot plant to symbol of human salvation, and himself from waste disposal operative to the greenest of green-fingered droids.

So, what does all this intergalactic husbandry tell us about ourselves – as terrestrial gardeners and plantspeople? That we are all misfits and outliers, happier in the company of plants and gardens than that of our fellow earth dwellers? That we are resourceful and resolute but idealistic and single-minded to a fault?

There might be something in this. I for one can relate to at least some of these character traits. As indeed I can to Freeman Lowell’s predicament, though I think I’d draw the line at going on a murderous rampage to save my salvia cuttings. But then again…

I think it also tells us that when technology finally goes tits up and leaves us scrabbling around in the dirt, wondering how to start again, we gardening types might just hold some of the cards.

Some fifty years since its making, what does Silent Running, Trumbull’s remarkably forward-looking cinematic vision, tell us about our responsibilities as custodians of an ailing planet? It tells us that we are vulnerable and that our fragile egos are hair-triggered. It reminds us that we are part of a bigger picture and shouldn’t forget it. And in no uncertain terms it warns us that we’d better get our shit together before it’s too late. I take solace in the following thought: that if and when the fat lady finally sings there might just be a real-life Freeman Lowell out there somewhere, silently roaming the outer reaches of our solar system, with his droids at his side and an intergalactic Eden Project in his care.

It just remains to say, Thanks for the ride, Doug – may you rest in peace among the constellations. Oh, and cheers for the whole gardening thing too; I got there eventually.


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