Long before online poker, Mike Caro’s poker-playing computer programs and “poker bots,” the 1972 science-fiction film Silent Running gave us poker in space.
As a movie whose themes include the importance of preserving life and understanding what it means to be human, Silent Running cleverly incorporates poker into the plot in help explore those ideas.
Directed by Douglas Trumbull, who had previously helped with visual effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), Silent Running made little splash at the box office when first released 40 years ago.
But the film has achieved cult status over the decades since including gaining interest recently thanks to its environmentalist message.
Space is the Place for Poker
Silent Running is set in a future in which Earth has become colonized to the point where all forms of plant life have become extinct.
All inhabited areas are climate-controlled. The only evidence of any vegetation that remains has been preserved in geodesic domes attached to space station-like freighters.
Bruce Dern’s character, Freeman Lowell, is a botanist working with three colleagues aboard one such freighter, the Valley Forge. Their craft is positioned near Saturn and carries six of the domes.
However, Lowell seems the only one among them truly dedicated to the crew's mission to preserve the forests they are maintaining.
Having been up there for eight years -- in contrast to the shorter stints of the others -- Lowell's level of commitment is much greater.
To Lowell’s dismay, an order comes to destroy the domes containing the forests immediately and go back home, with the plan being to return the freights to commercial service.
The others are unconcerned by the order and glad to go home.
But Lowell isn’t ready to accept the forests’ final destruction, a position that is necessarily going to pit him against his fellow crewmen.
“Three Big Bullets,” Three Deaths
As the story unfolds, poker is prominently featured in two separate scenes -- one early on involving the four crewmen and a later one involving Lowell and the drones (robots) who assist the crew.
In the first poker scene, the four men play a game using cheap plastic chips, poker obviously serving as a way to pass the time. We see one hand of five-card draw play out, with Lowell the victor.
A raise by Lowell gets called by two of the others, but the third one folds.
Lowell then slowrolls his colleagues, very deliberately showing his hand -- a full house -- by first turning over one trey, then a second, then announcing he also has “three big bullets” (aces full of treys).
As it happens, the hand prefigures what will happen soon afterwards when Lowell decides to disobey orders and save one of six forest-preserving domes from destruction.
That’s because in order to follow his plan, Lowell finds it necessary to kill the other three crewmen.
The first he kills by his own hand in one of the forests. Then the other two get jettisoned along with one of the domes before it is destroyed.
The rapid sequence of the crewmen’s deaths resembles that of the poker hand -- with one initially folding, then the other two “dying” together when they muck.
Like in the poker hand, Lowell demonstrates a kind of uncharacteristic ruthlessness when he carries out the task of eliminating the crewmen in order to save the forest.
Playing Draw Poker with the Drones
Having successfully saved one of the domes, Lowell pilots the freight through the rings of Saturn and thus escapes detection by authorities, quietly drifting in space (the “silent running” of the film’s title).
The second half of the film finds Lowell building relationships with the three drones or robots whom he comes to name Huey, Dewey, and Louie.
Via programming he teaches them to perform surgery on his injured leg, to plant trees, and eventually to play poker.
Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 might recognize the situation of a lone astronaut in space accompanied only by robots -- no coincidence, as the makers of MST3K apparently drew inspiration for their show’s premise directly from Silent Running.
One of the drones has already “died” by the time of the poker game, meaning Lowell plays three-handed with Huey and Dewey.
Prior to the game we see Lowell writing programs using an “Official Rules of Card Games” booklet as a guide.
The subsequent scene is quite funny and represents perhaps the happiest and most content stretch of the film, coming just before Lowell and the drones begin to encounter difficulties that threaten their little floating Eden.
Again, the Game is Draw Poker
The drones were actually truncated, box-like entities with arms operated from the inside by actors who were bilateral amputees (i.e., without legs).
Thus are their movements human-like even if they look more like air conditioning units than people.
Again, the game is draw poker. In the first hand Dewey seems to be having difficulty understanding how to play as he inexplicably discards three kings.
Lowell chastises Dewey for the bad play and scoops the chips, saying “you gotta get up pretty early in the morning to beat ol’ Freeman!”
Then comes a hand in which Huey and Dewey start hissing at one another as if they might be colluding.
Lowell declares it to be unfair for them to be talking, and before the draw he insists there’s a “house rule” against it.
In the hand both Lowell and Dewey take two cards while Huey stands pat. As Lowell looks over his hand, we see Huey cheekily turn his cards to the side to show them to Louie.
The scene is edited in such a way that we don’t really see betting happening, although it is implied.
Then comes the showdown. Huey slowly lowers a mechanical arm to show... a full house, jacks full of nines! A wide-eyed Lowell is ecstatic.
“The man has a full house and he knew it!” he cries out and begins to laugh.
“How about that?! Huey and Dewey beat me at my own card game!”
Orbits Around the Table While Orbiting in Space
While neither poker scene in Silent Running specifically advances the plot, both importantly serve to underscore ideas about poker’s significance as an American pastime as well as point to larger themes the movie explores.
The crew is American, of course. The space freighter -- the Valley Forge (named after a key battle site in the American Revolutionary War) -- is in fact branded as an American Airlines craft.
That they play with red, white and blue poker chips is perhaps incidental, though does further emphasize their nationality.
Additionally, as has been illustrated in countless ways over poker’s history in the U.S., the game here is shown readily filling a void for those taken away from their homes by travel or work.
Like voyagers on steamboats, soldiers in all wars, legislators on Capitol Hill and many others, poker becomes the game of choice.
That Lowell seems to take their game more seriously than the others corresponds to his more serious attitude toward their charge to preserve plant life.
When a player bets and then folds to Lowell’s raise, Lowell’s dismay parallels the disappointment he’ll feel when he learns the mission has been abandoned.
Companionship, Competition, and a Challenge
Meanwhile, the later game between Lowell and the drones more broadly signifies the importance of relationships, with poker serving as an ideal context to consider that theme.
It’s clear that in the larger scheme of the film Huey, Dewey, and Louie are meant somehow to replace the crewmen Lowell has killed.
The drones do provide companionship to Lowell, although with limitations.
Still, Lowell’s successful programming of the drones to play poker stands as an important breakthrough, as significant as his having taught them to perform surgery on his leg and plant a tree.
The poker game also seems to provide something else, too. Like the forest, it gives Lowell something worth competing for.
As Lowell complains earlier to the other crew members, Earth has become a place of soulless uniformity and no conflict. There’s no disease or poverty, apparently, but no variety, either.
Not only is “everything the same” says Lowell, but “all the people are exactly the same,” too.
“What kind of life is that?” he asks.
For Lowell, it’s a life in which “there’s no more beauty” and “no more imagination.” And, importantly, “there’s no more frontiers to conquer” either.
Thus teaching the drones to play poker in a way could be said to provide Lowell another challenge that makes life worth living -- another “frontier” of sorts.
While the pro-environment message of Silent Running is prominent, the film also examines other ideas about human nature and relationships.
Poker provides a ready context for such intellectual exploration.
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