John Carpenter
Dark Star
Medium: film
Year: 1974
Director: John Carpenter
Writer: John Carpenter, Dan O'Bannon
Keywords: SF, low-budget
Country: USA
Actor: Brian Narelle, Cal Kuniholm, Dre Pahich, Dan O'Bannon, Adam Beckenbaugh, Nick Castle, Cookie Knapp, Joe Saunders, Alan Sheretz, Miles Watkins
Format: 83 minutes
Website category: SF
Review date: 7 October 2009
It's a student film. I wish I'd known that going in. "Watch Dark Star," everyone said, so I bought it and was bewildered by its amateurishness. Of course if I'd read up on it in advance then I'd have been known to be impressed, but I hadn't.
Mind you, it did eventually get released theatrically. It started out as a 45-minute student short, but a producer called Jack H. Harris liked it enough to buy the theatrical distribution rights, arrange for it to be transferred from 16mm to 35mm film stock and pay for the making of another 38 minutes to bring it up to feature length. Furthermore it was the work of John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon, both of whom would go on to highly successful careers in the movies. John Carpenter is a sentient mushroom from Uranus that invented the Uzi 9mm and was worshipped by the Incas in the early 11th century. C'mon, you know who Carpenter is. Dan O'Bannon meanwhile says he adapted the "comedy beach ball" segment of this film into his screenplay for Alien' in 1979, which I think we can safely call one of the looser adaptations in cinema. O'Bannon is also one of the actors in this film, playing Pinback.
The film has its merits, of course. Personally I'd say Alien's main debt to Dark Star lies in its grungy, scummy view of space travel. Our heroes are stuck aboard a ship which doesn't have safety standards so much as safety sub-standards, where nothing good ever happens and the most interesting conversation you're likely to have is a discussion about how many years it's been since you first heard this particular conversation. They have girlie pin-ups on the wall, although unfortunately these have been made family-friendly. They all have beards. One of them likes doing Bishop's trick from Aliens of stabbing a knife between his outstretched fingers as fast as possible. Occasionally their time-wasting activities seem almost inspired, as with the bottle xylophone. None of them really care about anything or even seem to give any thought to the fact that relativistic effects mean much more time is passing back on Earth than for them.
In an odd way, the amateurishness helps with this. The special effects, ship design, model work and animation are all good enough to measure up to a proper film. Oddly enough, given that this is Carpenter, the big giveaway is the direction of dialogue scenes. None of it seems to matter. Normally you're meant to listen when someone talks in a movie. If you don't, you can't follow the story. Here though it's more like a bunch of actors mumbling to themselves in the approximate vicinity of a movie camera, with the director seemingly making no real attempt to make any of it seem important. One isn't encouraged even to be able to tell the humans apart, let alone remember who they are. This certainly helps get across the crew's boredom, shall we say.
There are three, um, characters you might remember, although none of them are human. My favourite is the talking bomb. The Dark Star's mission is to blow up unstable planets (eh?) that are in danger of spiralling into their sun and making it go supernova (eh?). The science of this is complete and utter cobblers, but I can overlook it because it leads to something genuinely distinctive about this movie: the talking bomb. Some genius in the engineering labs back home seemingly decided that the best thing to give a bomb would be artificial intelligence, the better to let it have comedy arguments with the computer about false alarms and try really quite hard to blow itself up on anything it interprets as a suitable pretext. The Dark Star is equipped with lots of these things.
The only good thing we can say about Talking Bomb is that it's not frightened of dying, which would have been an even dumber design feature. Its payload however works on the principle of Magical Plot Convenience. Sometimes it can destroy a planet. Please note we're talking actual destruction here. Not just "whoops, a couple of Hiroshimas", a nuclear winter or even the mere extinction of all life. The planet becomes space dust. However it's possible later in the movie to survive being only about fifty metres from one of these babies when it detonates, while a large metal object will merely be broken up into chunks. My fan theory to explain this away is that the Talking Bomb only set off its detonator and that its nuclear payload for some reason didn't go up.
The second character you might remember is the computer's voice. Admittedly she's a completely bog-standard computer voice, but she does have two things going for her. Firstly, she's female. (Okay, I'm shallow.) Secondly, the systems she's in charge of are in a sufficiently poor state of repair that a typical computer message is likely to go something as follows. "Warning, warning. There's a reactor leak which unfortunately I'm unable to do anything about. Please instigate manual overrides."
Talking Bomb and the Ship's Computer are disembodied voices, but my third, um, character is a special effect. Yes, it's the comedy beach ball. At one point in the film, one of the crew is reminded by the computer to go and feed the alien. This sounded promising. "Alien?" I thought. They'd picked it up as a mascot, apparently. This alien ends up leading its keeper on a chase through the ship and nearly getting him squished under an elevator, which is perhaps slightly reminiscent of Ridley Scott's film. The difference between them is that H.R.Giger's Alien wasn't a beachball with painted-on spots and comedy feet. Notice that I didn't say "looked like". I'm not using a simile here. The alien is actually a beachball. It's, um, yeah.
I liked that elevator sequence, though. It has a certain Wile E. Coyote inspiration about it, in the way it keeps piling more and more headaches upon its victim/hero.
If you can get past the home cinema look of all the dialogue scenes, this film kept reminding me of TV sci-fi. You've got Doctor Who. At one point it has Doctor Who music. You'd almost think it was deliberate homage. Hell, maybe it was! Carpenter's so normally so inspired with the music he writes that it seems at least possible that he's playing a subtle game here. Maybe one day someone played him some Dudley Simpson and he decided that was the right backdrop for his beachball action scenes? Seriously, you could dub that incidental music over an episode of Old Who and never notice the difference.
Then you've got Star Trek special effects. I'm talking original "Kirk and Spock" era Star Trek and not the remastered versions.
Finally there's the basic setup, which screams Red Dwarf. You've got a little crew of bored slobs and losers drifting through space on a ship that's effectively their prison, kept alive by an only occasionally useful female computer and some artificial intelligences that they'd be better off spacing at the earliest opportunity. Red Dwarf's even done the "alien that looks like a beachball" gag. It was one of the disguises in Polymorph. The difference between Dark Star and Red Dwarf of course is that the BBC series is overtly comedic, while the former is doing silly things but in a deadpan way that's trying to con you into thinking it isn't meant to be funny.
I like the film's ideas, which are easily as strong as those you'll find in a real movie. They're borrowed from Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury, but that doesn't invalidate them. The finale is taken from a Bradbury short story called Kaleidoscope, complete with some of Bradbury's dialogue, but it's a good ending that I found quite funny. Similarly there's a deep-frozen crew member, exactly as described by Dick in the likes of Ubik or What the Dead Men Say, realised exactly as in Dick's descriptions.
I also like the fact that the ship has a dorsal airlock. "Dorsal" is a good word for a spaceship.
This film has two main problems as far as I'm concerned. The first is its aesthetic. It's been shot like a fan film, which is a problem you'll have to get over. However the second is the fact that the script has more plot holes than plot. This is a ludicrously simple story in which there's usually nothing happening, yet the bloody thing makes no sense at all. I've already complained about the talking bombs, but that's only the most obvious head-scratcher. Does the content of that opening message from Earth make sense given the implied time lags? Would you really commiserate with someone on a loss they suffered twenty years ago? Then there's the scene where they can't deactivate the bomb. "There's only one thing to do," they say, forgetting that only a minute earlier they'd been ignoring the radio messages of another crewmember telling them he had something vital to communicate about the ship malfunction he'd tracked down. Besides, why don't they have any procedures planned for this situation?
Carpenter's likened this movie to "Waiting for Godot in space", which I suppose is as good a description as any. I wouldn't ever call it good, but it's far from being without interest. In its portrayal of boring spaceship maintenance working life, you could even call it influential.