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What's the big deal?
Dark Star is a sci-fi comedy film released in 1974 and marks the directorial debut of legendary film director John Carpenter. Originally produced between 1970 and 1972 as a student film for USC students Carpenter and co-writer Dan O'Bannon, the film gradually expanded to a feature-length production after securing additional funding and a distributor which took the film's overall budget from $6000 to $60'000. The film depicts a deep space mission to help humanity colonise the galaxy but encounters some unexpected difficulty from technical glitches, crew apathy, a distracting alien presence and a bomb with free-thinking AI. The film stars O'Bannon, Brian Narelle, Cal Kuniholm and Andreijah "Dre" Pahich with Carpenter and O'Bannon covering numerous roles behind the camera as well. The film achieved cult status thanks to the then-burgeoning home video market in the early Eighties and has proved influential to a number of other filmmakers, writers and creative forces ever since.
What's it about?
By the middle of the 22nd century, mankind has begun expanding across the vastness of space. In an effort to aid colonisation, a plan to destroy potentially unstable planets is developed and eventually, the much-heralded vessel Dark Star is launched into deep space to clear the way of these possible threats with the help of advanced explosive devices coupled with artificial intelligence. After twenty years alone in deep space, the ship and its crew are still continuing their mission although the ship has developed several technical faults and suffered the recent loss of the ship's commanding officer Commander Powell who is placed into suspended animation following the accident that killed him.
The surviving crew - helmsman Doolittle, bombardier Pinback, navigator Boiler and targeting specialist Talby - have become jaded after so long in deep space and have developed a number of distractions such as Talby's obsessive possession of the ship's observation deck and Boiler's habit of using the ship's laser rifle during target practise. But it's Pinback's adoption of a curious alien life-form that proves the most disruptive as a routine feeding goes disastrously wrong...
Andreijah "Dre" Pahich
Barbara "Cookie" Knapp
John Carpenter & Dan O'Bannon
Release Date (US)
16th January, 1975
PG (1997 re-rating)
What's to like?
There is no disguising the fact that Dark Star probably shouldn't have been released for theatrical viewing, at least from a production quality perspective. The dubious quality of the sound and picture underscores the fact that this was produced on a shoestring budget as part of a film student's studies. But despite this, Carpenter sets out his stall early and brings to the picture elements that would later pop up in his more celebrated movies - the electronic musical score sets the mood for scenes as effectively as it does in films like The Thing or Halloween while the film works really hard to produce some impressive sets and concepts that spit in the face of the budgetary restraints.
In fact, the film's limitations are part of its charm. Take the 'alien' on board the ship that is quite clearly a beach ball painted rather crudely to make it look like a PVC strawberry. There's even a tacit acknowledgement when it makes the sound a beach ball would make if it bounced around the sets like the 'alien' does. Credit must go to the cast, especially O'Bannon who spends most of his on-screen time in a comic battle-of-wills with the creature, for not breaking into laughter. Speaking of O'Bannon, you can quite clearly see the influences that Dark Star had on him as he later found fame as the creator and writer of that most seminal of sci-fi horror films, Alien. It might seem far-fetched when you consider Tom Skerrit crawling through the bowels of the Nostromo hunting the Xenomorph or the talking computer Mother displaying signs of callous disregard for the crew's lives but look again at Dark Star and suddenly, you can see the links.
- The film used several household objects on sets and costumes in order to save money. A row of large buttons on the bridge console is an up-turned ice cube tray lit from beneath, the chestplate on Talby's spacesuit is a muffin tray while the models of the talking bombs were made of plastic model kits for cars and trucks.
- Knapp only got the job of the talking computer because she answered the phone for her husband - cinematographer Douglas Knapp - and John Carpenter liked the sound of her voice.
- Pahich had a heavily accented voice so he was dubbed for the movie by Carpenter himself. Carpenter also voiced the frozen form of Commander Powell while O'Bannon also performed voice work as the talking bombs, credited as Alan Sheretz & Adam Beckenbaugh.
What's not to like?
However, good intentions and talent can only get you so far and to be brutally honest, the film doesn't really work as a comedy. Half of the time, you are laughing at it watching O'Bannon wrestle with a beach ball in the way Leslie Nielsen wrestles with a wet towel in The Naked Gun. The film feels too po-faced to be taken seriously and it's only in the finale that the film actually manages to amuse you. It also struggles to fill out its truncated running time - narratively, the film lacks a little hook to get you interested and doesn't develop its characters well enough. Pinback is the most interesting role by far - not just because of his interaction with the inflatable alien but because of a bizarre revelation that comes from nowhere and casts the character in a completely different light. Frustratingly, it never goes anyway in the film and almosts seems to have been forgotten about for the rest of the film.
There is enough here to understand why Carpenter went on to become one of the most celebrated directors of sci-fi and horror. But it is obvious that the film needed some considerable work to make it worth a cinema release - the special effects and model work are crude even by the standards of the day and it never fully escapes the feeling of essentially being a film student's homework. But Dark Star is an interesting curiosity for fans of Carpenter's work, even if it isn't particularly effective as a sci-fi comedy. I liked the portrayal of characters trapped at isolation - something I think we can all identify with at times like this - but the film feels too trippy and disconnected to really make much of an impact.
Should I watch it?
Dark Star is no sci-fi classic but at least it offers an interesting look at a famed director finding his feet and a writer finding inspiration. The film is an indicator of great things to come from both Carpenter and O'Bannon while, ironically, not actually being that great in the process. Maybe I wasn't high enough to get everything out of the film which felt a touch depressing at times and found most of its comedy from the situation rather than the dialogue or performances of the cast. It's also as rough as hell around the edges for obvious reasons with terrible sound and picture quality but it also has a ramshackle charm that's hard to ignore.
Great For: inspiring filmmakers, aspiring filmmakers, the stoned, fans of Carpenter
Not So Great For: the cutting edge, contemporary audiences, expectations
What else should I watch?
For obvious reasons, Alien is the first film that came to mind - not just because of the presence of its writer O'Bannon but also the similarities in terms of plot and themes. More than any of the sequels including the highly regarded sequel Aliens, the original brings the terror to the fore with a jaded crew outmatched in a battle of survival against a genuinely disturbing and unknown lifeform. Certainly, it's much more frightening than that cursed beach ball. Of course, if it's a sci-fi comedy set in space you're looking for then there are no shortage of options - try Mel Brooks' very silly spoof of Star Wars, Spaceballs or there's the big budget adaptation of the ever-popular cult novel The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. And any of my regular viewers will know that this is the point of the article where I sing the praises of Pixar's greatest film WALL-E which is among my favourite films of all time.
Carpenter would go on to enjoy a highly regarded film career as a director most at home with horror and sci-fi. From brilliant movies like The Thing and Halloween to cult classics like Big Trouble In Little China and Escape From New York to hidden gems like They Live and Starman, Carpenter has certainly provided plenty of memorable cinematic moments through the years. Although largely retired from filmmaking (his last view was 2010's The Ward and before that, 2001's critically panned Ghosts Of Mars), his legacy remains as solid as ever with much of his catalogue now revered.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox