In the — pleasant — 1970s film “Silent Running”, it has been decided that the space ship will “return to commercial service”. But why blow up the Domes? The workers are in a hurry, and this operation costs explosive nuclear tanks.

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    Just watched this film for the first time today and I had the same question. I think Valorum's answer is the closest we will get.
    – Blackwood
    May 20, 2018 at 3:36

3 Answers 3


There was never a direct answer given in the movie or in the book. However, there are a few factors:

  1. The domes required maintenance. While they apparently had a large area in each dome, it wasn't enough for an entire ecosystem. This is shown by Lowell's need to take care of them and his leaving one drone behind to take care of the forest. So leaving the domes out there, alone, would likely not preserve the habitats well. There would be no gain from leaving them out there.
  2. We're beginning to find out, now, in dealing with just what's in orbit around Earth, that space debris can be troublesome and even dangerous. The domes did not appear to have any ability to change course on their own (other than simple thrusters to detach from the ships), so their orbits would not be stable and they would soon become navigation hazards.

Beyond that, there's really no solid reason, but #2 can be a serious issue.

I loved the movie as a teen, but was only able to see it once or twice, but I read the book many, many times. The school librarian finally gave it to me because I checked it out so often and nobody else read it. But at one point the story for it all just fell apart for me for too many reasons:

  • There are too many people that enjoy nature to make it believable that Earth, as a whole, would just give up on nature so easily.
  • The ships were orbiting out near Saturn, which would mean there would be too little light in the first place, not just after the Valley Forge continued off course.
  • There's no real reason or need to put ships THAT far from the sun, especially when the plants on them need sunlight.

There's more, but it helps to remember the background of the movie. It was made by Douglas Trumbull, after making 2001: A Space Odyssey. There was a big discussion during the movie about whether they could make a convincing Saturn, and that it took more work to do Saturn than Jupiter (both required the planet, but Saturn needed rings, too). Some say Trumbull's entire purpose behind the movie was to prove he could make a good Saturn. Others say that the shots of Saturn were originally intended for 2001.

The movie was made on a budget of $1 million, had a 1:1 shooting ratio (almost impossible to do - it means no outtakes at all) and the original story was not environmentally focused. There were major changes in the storyline (I've never been clear why - probably due to budgeting), so the lack of logic is likely a result of pressured re-writing to either meet deadlines or an unbelievably low budget, even for then.

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    Interesting. Who wrote the book? For the ecosystem, the absence of caring cannot be worse that an explosion, so why killing the ecosystem? Why not leaving it its chance? And there are the drones, who can take the necessary care, like at the end. Space debris are an idea. But debris from a dome which has been exploded dome are numerous little parts flying very fast in many directions, and these are the dangerous space debris for cosmonauts. Whereas a huge dome drifting in one place is seen from far away, this is not a danger. Jan 7, 2013 at 13:21
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    Too many people loving nature? Today, most people say "Never again!" after catastrophes like Exxon Valdez and too many others, but there are still oil spills. This Earth without any tree left is credible, alas. Like in "Soylent Green" - film of the same era. Jan 7, 2013 at 13:30
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    @NicolasBarbulesco: The book is by Harlan Thompson. He's apparently written one other book and I can't find anything else about him - it's a bit tough, since there's several Harlan Thompsons, but since there's another book, I doubt it's a pseudonym for Trumbull or someone else on the staff. It's short, 116 small pages, and is basically a straight adaptation of the movie - as if he just watched it and wrote it out scene by scene. I haven't read it in a while, but I think it adds maybe one or two lines and that's about it.
    – Tango
    Jan 7, 2013 at 17:56
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    I can't rationalize a decision that's not rational in the first place. Like many of our books and movies, it's just a story. While I like to keep answers within canon, there are times when story logic doesn't work on a completely believable level - like the question so many of us have about LotR - why didn't the hobbits just ride the eagles to Mordor? Simple question that could kill the entire story - and here, we have the same thing. It may be easier to examine in light of the original story, which involved the ships being scrapped, but Lowell getting a signal from aliens.
    – Tango
    Jan 7, 2013 at 18:00
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    So it wasn't about just the domes being blown up - but, still, there is no solid reason for blowing the domes rather than parking them in orbit around Earth or another planet. In truth, and if you want to look at the ful situation, there's no reason why the environments had to be moved into space rather than putting protective domes over those areas on Earth. It's all these amazing gaps in logic that let to this story, which I originally loved, just falling apart for me so that I could no longer keep re-reading or watching it.
    – Tango
    Jan 7, 2013 at 18:01

Based on the film's official novelisation, the answer appears to be that the domes (with their cargo of plants and animals) represent a clear and present threat to the safety of Earth. There are mentions of the planet having achieved some sort of stable global temperature and cured pretty much every disease. People are being fed and the population is growing rather than declining.

Returning the domes to Earth (or even having them in orbit) could easily lead to the reintroduction of diseases that have since been eradicated and could threaten the status-quo in terms of food production. Blowing them up prevents any potential for this to happen.

He lifted some of the food from Keenan’s plate. “Look at that. Fried synthetic glop! And you’ve become so dependent on it that I’ll bet you can’t even live without it.”
“I don’t even want to, Lowell,” Barker muttered.
Lowell stared incredulously. “Do you realize how pitiful that is, what you just answered? On Earth everywhere you go the temperature is seventy-five degrees. Everything’s the same. All the people are exactly the same.”
He paused and asked in a hushed voice, “And what kind of life is that?”
“Lowell, if it’s so rotten, why do you want to go back?” Barker demanded.
“Because it’s not too late to change it.”
Keenan with a half laugh leaned forward.
“What do you want, Lowell? There’s hardly any more disease. There’s no more poverty. Nobody’s out of a job.”

Although there's a tendency for us, the viewer to idolise the natural world depicted inside the domes, the reality is that in the film most people on Earth have long stopped caring about seeing a real tree and would prefer to get on with their (well-fed, disease-free, no-poverty) lives without having to worry about some lunatic eco-warrior deciding that it would be great idea to reintroduce the plague flea or cover the world in stinging nettles.


I took it that American Airlines wanted the end of the maintenance of the dome environments to be a fait accompli. Once they were blown up, there was nothing anyone could do to take back that decision. If the domes were still floating somewhere, people could argue that the decision to abandon them could be reversed; they could be recovered and brought back into ecological service. However, if the biomes were destroyed, then whatever objections people might raise to discarding the conservation project would be, ultimately, pointless—since there would be no way to recover the lost domes once they were detonated.

I may have picked up with impression from a question-and-answer session I attended with Peter Schickele,* who wrote the music for Silent Running. I remember him talking about the difficulty he had getting the character of the music right for the changing character of the film. Apparently, Douglas Trumbull was told by the studio to make the film more heavy-handed and explicit in its message, since they were afraid that people would not understand either why the domes had been preserved in space or why they were eventually being destroyed. Schickele talked about having to rewrite some of the cues he composed to adapt to this changing tone of the film.

*This was around 1992 or 1993, long after the film, and when Schickele had also largely discontinued the shtick he was most famous for—performing the words of P. D. Q. Bach. However, he still toured the same way he had for decades, conducting local orchestras in performances of his own compositions and bantering with the audience.

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